The Exile Kite
by Peter Tupper
The guards led Shiloh in heavy, clanking chains down the corridor, lined with framed images from Before, bearing names that, generations ago, meant something: Ford, Google, Exxon, FEMA, USARMY. Now they were the revered past of a society that had no future.
The metal doors at the end of the corridor creaked open and the guards pushed him through into the council chamber. Beneath the vaulted ceiling, the elders sat in judgment there, each lit by a single candle.
The guards forced Shiloh to his knees, chains rattling on the concrete floor, a gloved hand clamped on each shoulder. Shiloh struggled a bit, more out of pride than hope.
The chair of the elders spoke in a rough whisper. “We have reviewed your actions and utterances, Brother Shiloh, and we can only conclude that you have violated the Ordinance by entering the archives without authorization. Do you repent your words and deeds?”
He could say “Yes,” but he knew what that meant: years in the lowest levels of the Shelter, breathing the toxic air, toiling to squeeze a little more life out of the failing machinery. Even that might have been worth it, if it meant he could see his absent companions. But Lukas and Abiah had already been exiled from the Shelter and given to the Wind.
“No, I don’t.” He was damned, he knew, but merely a little sooner than the rest of the people in the Shelter. His body water would go into the recycler, his muscle to the animal feed, his fat into the candles, his skin to the tannery, his ground bones to the greenhouses, even his hair to the weavers. The bitter joke was that even the dead served the Shelter and the Ordinance. Ultimately, the damned shared the same fate that awaited the most loyal and obedient in the Shelter.
“Very well, then. Shiloh, we sentence you to–”
“Begging the council’s pardon–” The interruption came from the tall, angular woman who sat at the far end of the council table. Iscah, the keeper of the keys to the surface, was an unpredictable element, everyone knew. Her expression was unreadable from the scars across her face, earned when she was one of the few brave enough to venture to the surface to maintain the Shelter’s air intakes and vents and go on scavenging missions.
Shiloh felt a faint hope as Iscah rose. He knew she was critical of the council, and perhaps she would argue leniency.
“The accused was under my authority when he broke into the archives,” said Iscah. The dozens of keys on the cord around Iscah’s neck clinked as she pointed at Shiloh. “Since our former brother was curious enough about the world beyond the Shelter to defy the Ordinance, let us oblige him. I ask that he be exiled.”
A different, sharper fear ran through Shiloh. He death within the Shelter was one thing, but to be sent beyond it?
The chair looked uncertain. “That seems undue punishment, Sister Iscah.”
“Surely the council is aware of the mutters of dissent throughout the Shelter. Making an example of this reprobate will silence them.”
“Indeed,” the chair said. “Shiloh, you are sentenced to exile from the Shelter.” He banged the gavel. “And may the Forefathers have mercy on you. Sister Iscah, carry out the sentence.”
Exile to the dead world… Shiloh was still trying to understand what had happened when Iscah grabbed him by the chains one-handed and hauled him to his feet. Even standing, he had to look up into her scarred face, teeth bared in a predatory grin. “You’re mine now.”
Iscah dragged Shiloh from the council chamber and onto the elevator platform at the bottom of the shaft to the surface. Without looking, she picked one of the keys off her necklace, thrust it into a lock and turned it. The ancient machinery creaked into life, and the platform rose up the shaft.
Too numb and exhausted to protest, Shiloh could only look at Iscah. Her coveralls bore trinkets from her scavenging missions, with words like “Misfits” and “Victoria’s Secret” and “Lego”, and the sleeves were slashed to bare her long wiry arms and their scars. Both violations of the Ordinance, to be sure, but council members had earned that indulgence through their long service to the Shelter; or so went the rationale. He had misjudged her as potential ally, but she was so secure in her position she could afford to make criticisms. All their cautious discussions had been a just game for her, and when she had left the key to the archives where he could see it, it had been nothing but a trap.
“You are cruel,” he said. What did he have to lose by challenging her?
Iscah made a small noise that might have been a laugh. “Only as I need to be.”
Shiloh strained against the manacles, the metal unforgiving against his wrists. “Cruelty is never necessary. Not even for survival.” He spoke in defiance of the Shelter’s ethos, every petty rule and punishment in the Ordinance justified by the needs of staying alive.
“I would enjoy debating that point with you, Shiloh. Alas, you’re leaving soon.”
As they neared the surface, he heard the never-ending Wind, even above the noise of the elevator. The blast doors cranked open, letting in the harsh light of the sky, so merciless compared to candles or electric light. The Shelter’s ever-present scent of damp rust was replaced by dry, salty grit.
The platform reached the surface and stopped with a clang. The Wind hit both of them, gusting almost strong enough to knock him over. With a smile, Iscah held her hand out into the Wind, fluttering it like a bird’s wing.
He had been taught that Before, this was farmland, but the Wind blew the soil away, leaving nothing but bare hard earth and the concrete of the top of the Shelter. On the horizon, he saw the crumbling remain of a Before city, worn down by centuries of neglect and the scouring grit of the Wind. After a lifetime in the comforting confinement of the Shelter, the sheer size of the surface world made him dizzy.
“Come along.” Iscah grabbed his chains and forced him to shuffle across the concrete to where the exile kite waited for him. Like a great bird yearning to fly, it strained against its moorings in the Wind, the fabric and metal wings fluttering with sharp crackling sounds. In place of the body of the bird, there were wicked metal hooks dangling from the frame. A thick cable ran from the frame to a heavy winch bolted to the concrete. This was what had carried his friends away from the Shelter into the dead world, leaving him alone.
Another one of Iscah’s keys undid the manacles around his wrists and ankles. For a moment, he was unconfined and he thought about fleeing, but there was nothing but unknown barren land around him, and the Shelter was forever closed to him.
Iscah stripped off his Shelter coveralls and sandals as if undressing a child, leaving him naked before her. The cold hard Wind ran between his legs, under his arms, over his bare scalp. Even his hair had been sheared off before; no point wasting any more of him than was necessary.
She moved him to stand in the middle of the triangular frame that attached to the kite itself, his back to its central keel. He heard the dangling hooks rattle against each other in the Wind, and cringed.
“You were brave enough when you took that key and sneaked into the archives. Don’t humiliate yourself now. Meet your fate with dignity,” Iscah said, almost kindly. She stepped forward into the triangle, chest to chest with him, blocking out the Wind, and reached around him. Her long, strong fingers pinched a thick layer of the flesh on the back of his shoulder, and the sharp point of a hook pressed into his skin, making him stiffen.
“It’s worse if you tense up. Take a deep breath and let it out,” Iscah said into his ear.
He did as she said. As he exhaled, she pierced his skin with the point of the hook and pushed it through him, sending a note of deep pain through his body, that terminated in another flash of pain as the point passed through his skin again in the opposite direction. Iscah’s fingers released him and the hook remained in his body. Just breathing made it shift in him, like the claw of some great beast.
“One down,” said Iscah, and she prepared to repeat the process on his other shoulder. “Inhale…. and exhale.”
The second hook she put through his back felt the same, but at least he knew what to expect, and breathed through the peaks and valleys of the pain.
“You’re doing well.” Her hands smeared with his blood, she grasped a handful of his right chest and moved another hook into position. “And inhale.”
He could watch this, see his blood drip as she drove the hook through his chest, feel his skin twist and pull as he breathed through it. It became a rhythm of breathing and sensation, and he took refuge in the predictability as she worked her way down his arms and legs, binding his flesh to the kite.
The dozen metal hooks pierced the flesh of his back, chest, thighs, calves, shoulders, forearms, pulling just enough to make his skin and muscle stretch. The pain from the hard, alien objects within his body had become a constant background note that underlay everything, modulated by the push and pull of the Wind upon the kite. He was raw and exposed, arms outstretched, legs spread, clutched by the kite, his essence bared to the world, his warm blood drying on his skin in the Wind.
The elevator platform ground to the surface again, revealing about a dozen people from the Shelter, off-duty workers sent to witness the penalty for defying the Ordinance. They looked at him with fear and pity.
Let them look, he decided, let them see the brutality of the Ordinance. Perhaps it would have the opposite effect, and spur greater defiance. There was a certain comfort in martyrdom. His suffering meant something.
“That’s all,” said Iscah. “Any last words?”
He might have begged for mercy, once. Now that the last possible hope was gone, he was strangely calm and remote from everything. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” was all he could think to say.
To his surprise, Iscah laid one gentle, bloody hand on his chest, between the metal hooks in his pectorals. “I know.” She kissed him. Despite her betrayals, he had dreamed of kissing Iscah, and this was his last moment of human contact before he was exiled, and he leaned into her, even as the hooks bit into him.
Iscah broke the kiss. His compassionate executioner took one step outside of the triangle, reached for the lever connected to the winch and pulled it to release the kite.
The Wind caught the wings of the kite and lifted them, the cable hissing through the winch. The hooks dug even further into him, sending fresh waves of pain. He seemed to fall upwards, away from the ground and the people gathered there, up into the cloudy sky.
His ascent stopped with a jerk, causing another jolt of pain that left him quivering as much as his bonds allowed. Lightheaded, he looked down, along the hundreds of meters of taut cable that was his only connection to the ground, to the patch of concrete in the middle of the vast wasteland, far, far below him. He could see the people gathered there, to watch one of their own be cast out forever. One of them, Iscah by her height, reached for the winch at the base of the cable.
Shiloh knew what was coming, but there was no way to prepare. With a loud snap, the cable detached from the kite. The wind immediately blew the kite up and away. He cried out as the kite bobbed and weaved in the Wind, earth and sky whirling around him, the hooks tearing into him again and again, until he feared he would be torn completely to shreds, his flesh and blood scattered across the dead world.
It took him a moment to realize that something had changed from the chaos. He wasn’t tumbling or falling, he was gliding. The kite seemed to be in a layer of calmer air with a steadily blowing current. Now that he was no longer tumbling, the hooks were only a dull, manageable ache inside him, one that left him with a kind of heightened awareness.
The kite carried him westward, and he drank in the sight of the land beneath him, ruins of Before buildings and roads, clumps of rust that were abandoned vehicles, a raging river that still flowed over boat wrecks, patches of vegetation stubbornly clinging to life. So many things that he had only glimpsed in the archive pictures. The world was so big, and the Shelter so small by comparison. At least he got to see these sights before he died, instead of metal and concrete walls. He even wondered if the drops of his blood from his wounds would fall to the dry earth below and fertilize it. There were worse ways to die, he reflected. Was this Iscah’s mercy in disguise?
The land below became more uneven and rose into a ridge before him. He wasn’t sure whether the kite would fly over it or crash into it. Even though he had been prepared to die moments ago, some remaining instinct for self-preservation made him try to change the kite’s glide path. Now that he was familiar with the sensation, he could shift his body as it hung from the hooks, trying to shift the trajectory. Was it enough? He’d know in a moment.
The tip of the ridge rushed past him, so close he was sure he would crash into it, but after a moment there was empty air beneath him again. The ridge dropped away into a valley, and below him were….
He must be seeing things. He shook his head and looked again.
The green of plants, growing in neat rows of crops. And beyond that, houses and buildings, smoke rising from chimneys. And people, working in the fields, walking between the houses.
One of them stopped and pointed up at him. Others gathered around to look, then ran beneath him as the kite descended.
He was going to reach the ground no matter what, but where and how was another matter. He had some degree of control over this. Directly before him there was the roofs of the village, but just to the right was an open meadow. Just maybe he could shift his weight enough to reach it.
Shiloh strained against the hooks, knowing that if he let the pain overwhelm him, he would crash into the houses. Little by little, the kite veered to the right, even as the rooftops rushed by beneath him.
The last of the roofs passed him, and there was the open meadow. Nothing to do now but hope.
The kite glided into an awkward, lopsided landing on the grass that sent a fresh jolt of pain through the hooks and into him.
Suddenly still for the first time since Iscah released the kite, he hung there, having no idea what to do next, not even how to get out of the suspension.
People ran up to the kite. Unfamiliar faces and voices surrounded him. “Does anybody know him?… Do you understand us?”
He looked into the broad face and brown eyes of a woman with a familiar toothy smile– “Abiah?” he said, not believing his eyes. She should be dead, but then again, so should Shiloh.
“Shiloh? Iscah sent you too?” She turned away and called out. “Lukas, come quick! It’s Shiloh!”
Another face moved into view, with a beard that would never be allowed under the Ordinance, but familiar nonetheless. “We’ve got you, Shiloh,” said Lukas. “Everybody, let’s get him loose.”
Multiple hands reached for the hooks embedded in him, and ever so carefully pulled them free with faint wet sounds, the metal sliding frictionless out from his flesh, leaving his cooling blood to trickle down his skin.
Naked and bleeding, he collapsed to his knees, his hands digging into the earth, releasing the smell of moist, fertile soil. Lukas wrapped a blanket around him. “You’re safe now, Shiloh,” Abiah told him. “Please, somebody get him some water.”
Even as he wept to be alive and in the arms of people he had thought dead, he couldn’t help noticing that Lukas and Abiah both had the same scars on their chests and arms as he did. Now he understood what Iscah had done. She still lived underground in the Shelter, surrounded by concrete and steel, so that when the council condemned those who broke the Ordinance to exile, she could free them instead.
“Iscah,” he said. One day, he swore, he would free her too.