Osprey’s Sky

White wave heads were making a line that stretched northward parallel to the coastline. A gentle sea breeze changed to an updraft on the sunshine-warmed land and pushed an osprey’s wings up softly. The osprey rose higher and higher into the sky in wide circles. The bird felt the heat on its back. It was not uncomfortable. Its feathers held the warmed air, and it flapped its wings powerfully. The sky above the bird was endlessly blue, white tiny clouds slowly drifting in the wind.

The ocean below was rich and fertile. Cold and warm currents mingled, stirring and pulling up the minerals from the bottom. Large schools of small fish fed on the explosively growing plankton, and many seabirds had been attacking the schools.

On land, there was a deep forest. On the shore, there were harbors without ships and settlements without people. A brand new road ran straight ahead, and a high-voltage line was stretched beside it. Not a single car was visible. Beyond the road, something glistening and reflecting sunlight looked like the water.

The flying osprey reached the glistening place. It flapped its wings once and then stopped moving. Suddenly it began to fall. It wasn’t the sharp descent of a predator aimed at a fish, but the fall of an object trapped by gravity.

Away from its nest, which held two small eggs and its spouse, the osprey, swept by a slight change in wind direction, would never return.

Leaning my elbows on the dining room table, I looked out the window in a daze. The sun was setting, and the sky was orange. It must have been a lovely afternoon.

“What do you want me to do?” It was Mizuki, who had returned the food tray already. I didn’t know if it was his breakfast or dinner. Eating at dusk always made me feel odd.

“Oh, please do it.” I took off the integrating dosimeter around my neck and handed it to Mizuki.

Mizuki was handy. He took off the panel on the back of the dosimeter with a small screwdriver and fiddled with a tiny switch. There was no one else in the cafeteria, so no one would see him.

“It’s about time, don’t you think?” Mizuki said behind his long bangs, poking at the back of the square, black box.

“When I make a little more money,” I answered vaguely, as usual. I didn’t have a clear goal in mind, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make money elsewhere.

“Tomoya, you are greedy.” Mizuki wanted to get out of here. I knew that.

“Is it done?” I ignored Mizuki’s words. I was a coward.

“Perfection,” Mizuki replied.

The yellow and black markings on the chest of his tight-fitting white T-shirt indicated a radiation control zone. It was a sick joke.

“It’s on edge.” The integrating dosimeters were at a critical juncture.

“It’s been four days in a row. It would be strange if it was low.”

Even if the number was just below the limit, I could go to work. I was sure the company had applied generous safety margins anyway, so it shouldn’t be a problem even if it was a little over.

“I’ll be fine.” I got out of my seat. There was still some time before the meeting, just enough time to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom.

Having left Mizuki sitting at the table and looking out the window in a daze, I went back to my room. From the window of my room, I could see the incinerator towing a pitch-black shadow into the setting sun.

The foreman came to the workers’ waiting room and began his nightly roll call. He checked that everyone was present and checked the numbers on the integrating dosimeters that hung around each of the workers’ necks. He punched the data into the terminal in his hand. Three workers were instructed to stay in their rooms tonight.

“Silly them, they could have adjusted it a bit,” I whispered to Mizuki and got a glare from the foreman. It was easy to adjust the dosimeters if you knew how to do it. But it was forbidden. Because it was dangerous. The foreman knew what we were doing, but as long as we didn’t make the numbers too weird, he didn’t say anything. It was not easy to get people to work in the field, and if we didn’t have enough people, the job wouldn’t be done by morning.

It was already dark outside the window. “Power transmission stopped. Safety confirmed. You can start the work,” the foreman’s radio receiver said. A power-generating satellite in geostationary orbit had stopped power transmission following the decreasing use of electric power at midnight.

“Workstation 3, copy that.”

The foreman’s language into the radio was always polite. The foreman was also a temporary employee, not a permanent employee. Permanent employees were on the other side of the radio.

“All personnel must wear protective clothing and assemble in front of this vehicle. We’re leaving in 30 minutes. Don’t forget to check the charge of your helmets. And don’t chat in front of me. I’ll take half a day off your paycheck if you crap your pants.”

The foreman was glaring at me.

“You were stupid,” Mizuki said as he put protective tape over the velcro on the front of the suit. The boots, with lead sheets in the soles, were weighty, and the dust masks smelled strange. Still, the daily wage was so high. I would work here, and when I had saved up enough money, I would go into town. I’d always talked about this with Mizuki, who I’d known since junior high school. There were no good jobs in the area.

“You’re not putting it in the right place,” Mizuki said. He was good at noticing this kind of thing. I shoved the hem of my pants into my boots and wrapped the protective tape around them tightly once more. If I didn’t get it neat, the foreman would turn me away, and I would lose my day’s earnings.

“Thank you.”

“Okay, check me.” Mizuki spun around on his right foot, using it as an axis.

“Okay. Perfect.” Now me. I spun around once.

“It’s perfect,” Mizuki said.

I cut the seal on the sticker type dosimeter and put it in place on my chest. Then I looked at the indicator on the helmet and made sure it was fully charged. It was a shared one, but a small skull sticker indicated that I usually used it. Otherwise, it was a pain in the ass to adjust.

Dressed tightly in protective clothing, we left the changing room. In front of the workshop, a microbus with a wide bed in the back was waiting for us. We lined up in front of it. There were twelve of us in total. The foreman, dressed in protective clothing like us, inspected each of us one by one.

“Today, we’re going to the Western Thirteenth District. Be sure to report when the dosimeter turns orange. That’s a highly polluted area.”

The integrating dosimeter that we always wore was designed to display the total exposure in a week. In addition to this, a sticker-type dosimeter on top of our protective clothing kept track of daily exposure. It started in green, then yellow, then orange, then workers had to stop working. If it turned red, the worker had to go to the hospital for a checkup, and he would lose earnings for the days in the hospital.

“Come on. Get in the car.”

We boarded the microbus at the behest of the foreman. It was his job to take the wheel, but he did nothing when we arrived at the scene. He just sat in the driver’s seat, which was shielded from radiation.

He started driving in the dark. Mizuki and I were sitting in the front seat, so we had a clear view of the outside. The glare from the headlights cut out the concrete road from the dark. The road had been rudely constructed. The workshop itself was in the controlled area, so there was nothing around it. There was nothing but bare ground.

The nuclear accident happened before we were born. It left behind complicated pipes and fuel rods in the core and debris and contaminated soil. In the end, it was decided not to dispose of the low-concentration dirt and debris, and the plant was left as was, with only a dispersal prevention process in place. Of course, it was impossible to simply leave the vast, contaminated area vacant, so it was decided to use it as a receiving grid for a power generation satellite. It was now a significant power generation facility, providing fifteen percent of the metropolitan area’s peak power.

I remembered seeing it in a satellite photograph. Only this corner of the archipelago was dark, a gaping hole in the night light.

After a short drive, a vast concrete and metal tree appeared in the light of the headlights. These were the poles of the power grid. Thousands of pillars made up a vast forest. The microbus entered the forest.

The contaminated area where the power receiving grid was located should have been unmanned. If it had needed maintenance, maintenance robots would have been used. If all had gone according to plan, there wouldn’t have been any work to do by humans. But there had been an unexpected job.

That was the job of our cleaning team.

First, it was birds. Birds that wandered into the receiving area and were boiled up like a cat in a microwave oven. If it was a common seabird like a seagull or a petrel, it was no problem, but if it was a rare species like an osprey or a goshawk, it was a different story. The power receiving grid itself would be criticized by NGOs who were fussy about environmental protection. So we had to clean up all boiled birds’ carcasses before they caused problems. During migration season, one person could collect three large garbage bags of dead birds. That was what we did.

“I have a feeling there will be one today,” Mizuki blurted out.

“Do you want to bet?” I said.

“You’ll only owe me more.”

The losses had been pouring in until now. Mizuki was strangely perceptive about these things.

“I guess I shouldn’t. I have a feeling I might have one too.”

The conversation froze as we recalled the warning from the foreman. The microbus drove silently through the forest of concrete and metal.

“Here we are. What are you waiting for? Earn your day’s wages.”

The microbus stopped, and we each grabbed a trash bag and got up from our seats.

When I turned on the light on my helmet, a gray world unfolded in front of me: crushed concrete and rusted steel frames. If I had pointed a Geiger counter at it, it would have sounded like scratching. We started walking in groups through the designated area.

The first object was similar in color to the concrete but different in appearance and texture. The soft gray mass was a seagull. Bending down increased radiation exposure, so I used large metal tongs to pick it up. As my eyes adjusted, I could see more of them. I hadn’t been here in maybe two months, and a quick look revealed that quite a few seabirds had fallen since then.

Most of them were gulls and terns. They didn’t have the brown feathers of ospreys and goshawks, but there were large unfamiliar birds that had fallen too. There was the carcass of a large black ibis, which must have escaped from a zoo somewhere.

Our flickering lights were all that was visible in the dark concrete forest. Mizuki would be the one closest to me on the right. The distance was too far to talk.

The power receiving grid’s struts were arranged in a regular pattern, each one numbered, so there was no need to worry about getting lost. I strained my eyes and looked around to pick up dead birds. The garbage bag in my left hand became heavier and heavier.

When I saw it after midnight, I knew I had been right.

A red boot behind a strut.

“Shit, it’s a double suicide.”

They were lined up on a blanket, not that old, well boiled but not mummified. A sharp beeping sound echoed in the darkness as I sounded the buzzer hanging from my belt.

“I knew I hit it,” Mizuki said, his voice muffled through the dust mask.

“You both are talking nonsense.” It was another old worker who said that. Efficiently, he took a few pictures.

There were five people within earshot of the buzzer, and eventually, six workers gathered around the two bodies. Just three of us for each one dead. One of us held both legs while two carried the bodies by their arms.

At some point, the receiving grid had become a suicide spot. They took sleeping pills, and while they slept soundly, the power-generating satellites would transmit microwaves that slowly boiled them. There were no ugly scorch marks on the corpses these days, as the public had been thoroughly informed that all metal had to be removed.

We threw the bodies into the back of the microbus, where several trash bags were already piled. Three workers sat in the bus idly. They were all orange.

“You hit it!” One of them looked back over the seat at Mizuki.

“I was hoping I’d be wrong,” Mizuki said with a grumpy voice.

“Don’t waste time. You guys go and fill up a garbage bag quickly. Then we’ll leave for today,” the foreman declared, and honked the horn of the microbus three times in rapid succession. Then there was a different, sharper sound in the darkness. The dosimeter on my chest had turned an infinitely yellowish-orange.

When we returned to the workshop, we placed the two bodies on the floor of the morgue. The cold concrete floor seemed an uncomfortable place for them to sleep. The police would be there in the morning to take them in, since the foreman would have called them. It wasn’t our job to lead them to the scene where the bodies were found. We couldn’t and didn’t want to know why these two people wanted to die.

Mizuki stood still, looking down at the corpses. I grabbed his elbow and pulled him away. As long as the rumors of a clean death in this place wouldn’t die away, there was no stopping suicidal people from scaling the barbed wire fence. The length of one side of the power receiving grid alone was twenty miles.

We returned to the microbus and took the heavy garbage bags to the incinerator behind the workshop. The incinerator would turn the burnt birds into white smoke rising to the sky. But we wouldn’t see it because we wo
ld be asleep before the sun came up.

“How long are we gonna be here?” Mizuki said, looking down.

“We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry about it.” I lightly tapped Mizuki on the back.

Once in the workshop, I took off my protective clothing in the changing room. I put my dust mask in place on the shelf and set the helmet on the charger. I shoved the peeled tape, protective clothing, and gloves into a plastic bag and shut the bag tightly. This was going to the incinerator too. They said it had the latest filter, so no radioactive material would be dispersed.

It was a shit terrible job. Even though I was microwave-disinfected, I felt the smell of death seeping into every corner of my body. When I finished, I went to the shower room before anyone else to wash away the smell. I shampooed my hair thoroughly and washed off the fine particles of death.

When I saw a generous amount of hair tangled in the drain, I wondered if it was time to go. Still, if I woke up again, I would probably ask Mizuki to adjust the integrating dosimeter.

I lowered my head under the shower, thinking of the birds returning to heaven in a puff of smoke.

The water, just the right amount of warmth, ran down my neck, down my back, and fell slowly to my feet.

The indelible sin of comfort. When the sun eventually would rise, the grid would begin to send electricity to the city.

The city always forgets the existence of sin.

mm

Author: Takayuki Ino

Takayuki Ino was born in Niigata prefecture, Japan. He graduated from the Chemistry Department, Faculty of Science, Science University of Tokyo. He worked as a government official of Japan for more than thirty years. He resigned from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry in 2017 and moved to Huahin, Thailand, with his wife and two cats. His first novel won the 2009 Nihon SF new writer award from SF Writers Japan. The award-winning novel, Oparlia, A Forest Planet, was published in 2010. Since then, he has published dozens of short stories. His most recent works are “Honest mask” in the anthology Post Corona SF, published by Hayakawa Publishing Corporation, “Distance under the Moon Shade” in Night-land Quarterly, published by Atelier Third Ltd. and “Kazarov in a Powered Case” in the anthology Memory of Re-sleeve, also published by Atelier Third Ltd. (all in Japanese). “The Dragon Sword of Valenharel” is his first English short story in the anthology Crunchy with Ketchup, published by WolfSinger Publications.

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