The Fifth World

Vulture Priests

Vulture Priest by Jason Godesky
They make a frightful sight with their black robes, red hoods, and long-beaked masks. Stories and songs swirl around them, as well as rumors of terrible witchcraft. An air of fear envelops them.

Of all the ancestors’ legacies, their bitterness has lasted longest. Ancestors’ bitterness has no color or smell or sound, but can permeate the very air around you or the ground beneath your feet. It causes ancestor sickness. It poisons the land. No threat creates so much uneasiness.

Between the people and the bitterness stand the Vulture Priests. Wherever one can find bitterness, one finds these priests, warning people away. They make a frightful sight with their black robes, red hoods, and long-beaked masks. Stories and songs swirl around them, as well as rumors of terrible witchcraft. An air of fear envelops them.

They keep the bitterness contained as best they can, but at a heavy price. Once initiated into the Vulture Priests, one can expect to live only a few years. Their proximity to the bitterness makes their bodies rot. For this reason, they only recruit the very old, who expect to die soon anyway. They give themselves to the order to give one last gift to their children in their deaths.

They take their name and fashion their regalia to honor scavengers that turn death back into life. Inside their temples they follow strict rituals handed down over the generations to maintain the casks and tunnels and pools that keep the bitterness contained. Few know the purpose of these rites, only that they must follow them precisely. This strict observance keeps the bitterness contained — for the most part. The Vulture Priests know that even with the most strict observance the rituals eventually fail. The temples burn, the bitterness escapes, and everything around it will die. They know that in the end their sacrifice only delays the inevitable.

Those who join the priesthood swear an oath, which they repeat every morning before they begin their rituals:

We give our lives to the vigil.
We give our bodies to the vigil.
So long as a single person breathes
The vigil must go on.

Nuclear waste will remain dangerous and volatile for at least 10,000 years — longer than any single language or civilization has existed. Even if we successfully contain it all in the safest area, far underground in a non-earthquake-prone area, a sizable risk remains that over the millennia humans might try to live nearby or even dig underground and discover the waste.

In the early 1980s, the Human Interference Task Force was established to come up with solutions to this inconceivably long-term problem. How do you warn people away from “hot” sites long after they’ve ceased to understand your language or even common symbols? One participant, linguist Thomas Sebeok, suggested that we encode warnings in myth and legend by establishing an atomic priesthood.

As civilization crumbled, some nuclear engineers seized on this idea and formed the first Vulture Priests. They passed on long-term maintenance tasks specific to each plant and storage site as rituals. It became important for the priests to learn these rituals exactly, perform them exactly, and pass them on exactly.

The rituals do not usually entail direct exposure to sources of radiation, but the priests must live and work in areas with large amounts of radioactive material and declining infrastructure. They do not have the means of creating effective shields, and so the Vulture Priests simply accept that their work will lead to an early, painful death.

The priesthood has proven quite successful at practicing and maintaining its rituals precisely, but even so, small variations have crept in. Facilities have decayed over time, and even unforeseen developments have introduced problems that the Vulture Priests had no means of addressing. They’ve lost several sites throughout their history, including several meltdowns that wiped out all life in a large area. With their basic acceptance that this work will cost them their lives, the priests already have a fairly grim perspective. Losing sites one by one has convinced them that ultimately their cause will fail. While some new priests enter the order intent to keep the rituals going forever, more and more of them accept that their work means sacrificing their lives only to hold off an inevitable doom for a little bit longer.