by Ian Watson

Auroras flickered overhead - dancing spooks tricked out in rose and violet and orange veils only held vaguely at bay by the daylight, to return every night in their full... should you say Glory? - for yes it was glorious... or Rage? - yes, it had been rageful. Sheets of mocking pseudoflame putting all but the brightest stars to flight, preluding that not so distant day of the Nebulosity when the whole universe might be reduced to a few dozen light years radius and the art of astronomy die, apart from the catching of the elusive neutrino or the peering through any few happenstance vents in the swirling skirts of so-thin so-bright gases...

They rode a military halftrack driven by a soldier called Kruger, hosted by the vulgar Major Woltjer...

"Did not ought to have been Sirius!"

Woltjer glared over his shoulder at the four of them accusing them of incompetence though they weren't astronomers or physicists.

"This here is Smitsdorp Farm we're moving on to now." His eyes, lingered on Andrea Diversley, pressed up so tightly against the Indian geneticist with her arm round his waist. Such shameless affront to his Afrikaner principles in the presence of other whites! His gaze raped and whipped the Englishwoman for it. Yet such an unimportant thing nowadays, apartheid, when you come to think of it, ever since...

"Did not ought to have been! What do you think, Miss Diversley?"

"True, Major, the Dog Star played a dirty dog's trick on us."

"Well did it not so?"

Smitsdorp farm looked like recovering its grass cover adequately - by contrast with barrens they'd passed - in some outcrops far too adequately perhaps - those would have to be looked at later - and the soil, what insects, what micro-organisms hid in it - but now their destination was towards the low hills where some of the irradiated seeds that had been stored outside and sown in control strips had produced some unexpectedly high yields, maybe genetically unstable, even nutritionally undesirable...

Woltjer tried his best to shame her into untwining from the Indian, but she only shrugged.

"It isn't my field of study, Major."

His neck got tired of twisting round and he stared ahead again over the rolling ravaged acres of a farmland that would never support grazing herds again.


So what did he mean by that? wondered Simeon Merrick, sitting beside Andrea and her Indian beside the taciturn defensively chauvinistic Swede, Marholm. That scientists of any breed whatever bore some responsibility for events in the interior of the Dog Star?

Disaster. Yes. But amazingly in the event it hadn't been anything mankind had done. After so much fret and agitation over nuclear warfare and the running down of resources and overpopulation and pollution - all kinds of doom sketched out for the nineteen eighties - disaster when it had come (as everyone obscurely sensed it must - and that was the one constant in the equation!) came wholly unpredictably, from a point wholly external to mankind's affairs.

Yet how could it be external? Was it not an illusion to think of it as external?

What hath Man wrought, that God in His wisdom should permit - no! engineer this cosmic event - should so dislocate the order of the heavens and the orders of life on Earth?

What hath Man wrought, ten years ago, that should finally tip the scales of God's estimation? Simeon hunted back through the decade before, after some exemplary evil - that eluded him.

What earthly events could have prompted the terrible flaring of the Dog Star, as absurdly shocking for the astronomers to stomach as for this Afrikaner soldier Woltjer? What sequence of sins? Perhaps simply too many people had stopped believing in God? G, O, D... D, O, G... The God-Star! - absurd comedy in heaven, with a devilish ring to it, almost set up as a temptation to disbelief...

Ridiculous! No single event or set of events could decide God's mind so. (Yet - recall the cities of the plain, Simeon, remember Sodom and Gomorrah... those had reached a certain point, attained a critical mass of sinfulness - they had gone too far!)

Surely the modern God was no such petty dictator, petulantly setting fire to a star to scourge His Sons and Daughters?

It just had to be the whole trend of human history, of Sin as such. Accumulated Sin. Sin such as South Africa itself. Sins of exploitation and segregation. And yet, and yet, fretted Simeon, why, Dear Lord, Thy choice of this special moment in time? And why wasn't it the Whites who had died? Why wasn't it the Rich and Powerful who perished? Why was it the Blacks, the Browns and the Yellows? The Poor, the Wretched of the Earth? Why was it they that disappeared? Why was it the Major Woltjers of this world, going down the deep mines that their wealth came from for the first time in their lives and sheltering there, while above ground the black miners took the peak dose of 8,500 roentgens and died - who came through? Same pattern repeated all over the globe... emabarassing querulous voices of Underdevelopment stilled forever, developed peoples of the world having the resources and technology to survive... the `Cleansing Operation' he'd heard it referred to in Jo'burg by men like Woltjer. Cleansing Operation. Same situation in Asia, South America. All embarassments cleared away by the charged particles that followed on the heels of the flare of light that itself gave only the briefest months of warning... Why?

Clean-up. Why?

And still Woltjer was angry at Andrea's tenderness to this Indian who'd had the impertinence to survive and who now accepted these white liberal caresses with such greedy nonchalance...

"Did not ought to have..."

"No indeed," Gunnar Marholm said brusquely to shut him up. "Did not but it was. So are we to blame somehow? Is science itself? Don't you know it all happened several times before in Earth's history? Look at the geological record, man! You'll find mass extinctions of fauna there. A probable acute dose of 500 roentgens every 300 million years. A single dose of as high as 25,000 roentgens once since Precambrian times. Agreed it was an unfortunate star to explode. Giving us such a high peak dosage."

Simeon looked out the window at the somewhat recuperating earth. Blessed sight of renewed chlorophyll. But amongst and around, a hundred cattle skeletons, tattered hide still hanging on white bones.

And scattered with them, they were now passing by - and crunching over - recognisably human skeletons. Kruger drove the halftrack right over them without making any effort to detour.

"The universe doesn't owe us a living, Major," murmured the Swede.

Yet how the Lord had helped those who had helped themselves! Oh yes - those who had helped themselves to the fruits of the earth all along had had their great granaries to hide in from his wrath - and hide successfully they did! Sweden had done all right out of the Clean Up too - over ninety per cent of their population saved. Not that Sweden, to be fair, could be accused of having `helped itself' compared to the other developed countries. The record was honourable. Development aid. Was this why Gunnar Marholm acted so icily chauvinistic? Simeon wondered. Because he felt his own people's survival tainted by that of the real pirates of the globe who weathered the storm a shade less successfully than social democratic Sweden, to a lesser degree of antiseptic perfection? - yet still magisterially successful beside India with her half of one per cent of the people saved - or Nigeria with her tenth of one per cent! Beside Britain, prime ex-colonist, with 52 per cent of the population saved - beside America with its 54 per cent, mainly Whites - beside this same South Africa they were riding through now with its high-soaring 80 per cent of the White population saved?

And after all the Swedes were Whites, whitewashed with the same brush as Britain, America, Germany, France...

The Lord helps those that helps themselves. The Meek and the Poor are burnt like chaff.

Is God then illogical? Inconsistent? Yet surely it couldn't be that it had nothing to do with God? From this thought Simeon recoiled. God could neither overlook - nor could he commit illogic or evil. There must be a Purpose.

One half of one per cent - no, India hadn't done at all well.

Thus the caresses of the Englishwoman, guilt that could only assuage itself in her heart by surrendering herself to Dr Subbaiah Sharma as slave to his erotic demands...

"Geological record, Gunnar?" Simeon argued, worried and upset - while the halftrack crunched over the bones of Zulu or Xhosa people. "The only comparable event I know is the Bethlehem supernova - the Star of the Magi which God kindled to tell us of the first coming of His son - now there comes this second..."

"This second what? Second Coming? Ha! A random accident. Let it happen fifty years ago and only the merest remnant of the human race would have pulled through. Too few maybe. As it is -"

"Yes?" cried Andrea, hugging her Dr Sharma to her, twisting the knife in the guts of her conscience. "And as it is?"

"As it is, assuredly," Marholm shrugged - for they had been through the argument before, "several hundreds of millions survived. Maybe as many as five hundred million. The populations of the developed countries, by and large."

"All the statistics aren't in." he reminded her.

Sharma laughed. His presence - a walking corpse's, a ghost's. Living reminder of the forever dispossessed.

"So it seems that the meek haven't inherited the earth after all, as your Bible promised, except as this bonemeal around us!"

Andrea hugged him, loving him for the whole abruptly terminated agony of underdevelopment. She herself had weathered the cosmic storm down in Goblin's Pit near Bath in the Wansdyke Commercial Deposit as a Priority A survivor, class of Agricultural Botanist...

"But hell," blurted Woltjer just when it seemed the matter was losing its momentum, "did come as a kind of blessing, let's be frank about it - I mean, population problem's solved! We don't need worry about squeezing ourselves off the planet! Using up all our resources. See what I mean?"

"Oh yes," cried Sharma. "Yes I do see, Sir. Was it not generous of us three billion people to move aside out of your way?"

See, he identifies himself as a corpse. Yet his erotic clamourings nightly deny this - unless we regard it as a form of necrophilia in reverse.

"Oh Subby! Please!"

But oh, how the mere presence of the Indian scientist spelt imperfection and untidiness to Major Woltjer's mind!

"Many more creatures besides us coloured people need not feel guilty at taking up room any more!" And oh, how he was exploiting Andrea with his erotic demands, more than a little, Simeon was fleetingly aware with distaste...

"Such as all large animals, good thing Major Woltjer? Byebye elephants, giraffes and camels. Byebye whales and seals and dolphins. Byebye crows and eagles, doves and hawks. Byebye byebye."

Oh Lord God, Who in Thy mercy didst send the plagues upon Egypt to save Thy people, didst Thou send this plague from the Dog Star also to save Thy people - that this human race of Thine might not entirely destroy itself by its own hand, as had seemed so very likely - and thus rob Thy Earth of its fairest crown of creation? Too soon, Dear Lord, to terminate Thy grand creation!

"Second deliverance? Second Bethlehem?" Simeon murmured aloud - and Subbaiah Sharma greedily caught up his murmurs - as greedily as he caught up and battened on Andrea's conscience.

"Those that have, shall have more, Simeon. That is the New Bible. Those that have little, shall have nothing. Even the dignity of burial denied."

The halftrack crushed another Zulu or Xhosa skeleton. Many scattered about here. Like a migration. Resumption of the Bantu migrations across the country, to no earthly end whatever...

Woltjer merely smirked.

"God helps those as helps themselves."

They passed through heaps of dry bones the new grass was forcing its way between - a thousand cattle skeletons - a thousand human skeletons... Lo, though we drive through the valley of dry bones, let us fear no evil, prayed Simeon to God, Who must know.

Anonoymous bonemeal in rags and tatters of cast-off European garments.

"Did not ought to be in this zone!" grumbled Woltjer almost as if a generous moment of doubt had assailed him and he felt bound to excuse the halftrack's crushing of their bones - though what way round this last great Bantu trek there was, was hard to see. "Wasn't authorised for Bantu you know this zone. Must have thought they could make the jump on us when we excavated!"

No, no moment of doubt.

"Maybe their only remaining dignity," the Indian said quietly, "was to be walking across this land that was once theirs, when the roentgen storm arrived. To die saying this is our land after all, and you can't ever take it away again. Because there's nobody to take it away from now!"

"You can see the cultivations now," Kruger pointed.

As they walked among the queerly prolific corn and mealies and sorghum, Woltjer strode about kicking bones.

Kruger left his driver's seat, approached Andrea and Sharma with a leer on his face.

"You think there'll be mutations? You think there's mutations in insects and things? Read about mutants once in a book - what monsters there might be after an atomic war! What - miscegenations?"

Sharma eyed him distastefully, but was set for another twist of the knife.

"But it wasn't a nuclear war, Sir. So no radioactive isotopes lie around. The radioactive problem from isotopes made by cosmic rays is a very secondary matter. There shan't be any monsters breeding to roam the Earth."

"Is zat so?"

"Sorry, nothing so interesting. Just a kill-off process. Most exposed fauna. From now on it will be a world of very little things. Man will be big and overwhelming. Otherwise insects and micro-organisms and of course some fish in the sea. But mainly man. Six foot tall man towering over it all. Seeds are highly radioresistant so man will manage to feed himself on fish and cereals. A few million more will die before enough food becomes available. In the more impoverished countries needless to say."

"Is zat so?"

"Then Western Man will have the planet to himself. European Man. Man of the Future. What a wondrous rich technological civilisation he will enjoy in another few decades, when all this unpleasantness is no longer remembered - no more social irritants or aberrations to disturb the order of things!"

"Don't, Subby. Don't demean yourself taking to him. You're worth ten of these Afrikaners."

Petulantly Sharma shook off Andrea's hand.

"Ten Indians and a dog! A westerner's dog used to eat ten Indian's food. I wonder how many cats and dogs were saved in the shelters of the West?"

"There were rules, Subby. They were strict. But there had to be some kind of Noah's Ark operation."

"Ha ha."

"For chickens and pigs and beasts like that, if only to restock."

"How many Indians was an English pig worth?"

"But we lost our people too, Subby!"

He shrugged. "The working class."

Andrea turned back to her botany. Her eyes seemed moist but Simeon couldn't be sure, for just then Kruger let out a shout of surprise and sprinted back to the halftrack. He brought out a couple of rifles with sights and tossed one to Woltjer.

Simeon stared at the hills, shading his eyes against the bright sun - shading his mind against those dancing veils of heaven high above the fleeting cottonball clouds.

Saw a ragged column of raggy people trekking down from the direction of Broederskop, led by a tall bearded white man carrying a red and white flag flying from a gilded Latin cross.

As they moved closer Simeon worked out the flag design - the white skull on the blood-red background...

Alpha Canis Majoris A, the Dog Star Sirius - an energy spendthrift not quite nine light years distance from the Earth, twice as massive as the Sun and twenty-five times as bright, though only one third as dense - hardly a candidate for supernovahood from its place in the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram - exploded nevertheless, discharging between 10^42 and 10^43 joules as cosmic rays, producing massive flux at the top of Earth's atmosphere and a worldwide radiation dosage at ground level, over a three day period, peaking at 8,500 roentgens - whereas the usual background dosage a year is 0.03 roentgens...

Three billion human beings died as a consequence. Those who were unsheltered.

Most birds and beasts and shallow-water fishes died. Unsheltered.

Most flora was defoliated (but would recuperate asexually or through seeds and spores).

The sky flamed rose and green and violet with charged particles trapped in Earth's magnetic field... The sky had never been more beautiful...

However few stood up to praise the glory in the sky.

In a million years, the reason why might appear in the record of the rocks...

"I thought you didn't grant shelter to any Africans, Major?" said Sharma innocently.

"Africans? What Africans? We are the Africans. Is what Afrikaner means! Bantu, is what you mean."

"Terminology of a twisted mind."

"No, it is accurate. We was here first, before the Bantu..."

"And you're still here, after them."

"So I had thought!"

Woltjer grasped the rifle tighter, squinting through the sights.

"You're not just going to shoot, for no reason?"

"Naw, Miss Diversley. I's looking at them. But they's crossing a non-permitted zone, those Bantu."

"A what?" cackled Sharma. "You must be crazy!"

"Unless servants or hired labour with passes."

"Oh great - that lets me in! I qualify as hired labour, don't I? Thank you for reassuring me Major."

"Subby -!"

"Yes all right Andrea." Yes it would be all right for Subby later on, thought Simeon with a demeaning dirty smirk of the mind he couldn't control - how Subby would sublimate his racial humiliations later on... Feeling ashamed of himself, he caught a fold of flesh between his fingers, and pinched hard till he ached.

"Unh, I know the fellow with the flag, Frensch is his name, was a pastor. I thought he'd ha'died - must have found shelter. Wonder where's been past year?"

"Kaffir-lover," the Major added.

"Looks like they plan coming on down through the plantings, Major."

"So I see, Mr Marholm. Spoil the plantings. Trample them with their dirty feet."

Woltjer swung his rifle away from the column and fired off a shot that crashed horridly, leaving a silence of deafness behind it. Andrea covered her ears, bottling up the noise of the gunshot in her head and conscience.

Marholm laid a calming hand on Woltjer's arm.

"I's a good shot, don't worry. I aim to miss. Send them round the plantings. Just looking now. Watching."

The column did veer away, to angle round one corner of the plantings.

"Good enough," grunted Woltjer, lowering the rifle. "Recognise one of the Bantu too, Stephen Ambola. Had difficulty with him. Not a politico exactly. A religious agitator - like Alice Lenshina, remember her Native African Church?"

The gilded cross, the white skull flag, tottered round the perimeter of the cultivated area, headed their way again...

First the column struck Simeon like a satire on nineteenth century exploration through Africa with its white leader bearing aloft the symbol of empire, pursued by a gang of skinny black bodies. Then vision readjusted, the troop was...\ a wretched medieval crusade. Not knights and squires. Starving people. Diseased people. Burning with blind faith. Like in the corner of some medieval horror by Hieronymous Bosch. Children's Crusade. Crusade of Innocents and Wretched.

Though they walk through the Valley of Dry Bones, Dear Lord let Thy word guide them!

"What you wanting?" bellowed Woltjer. "Frensch, I know you, what you doing here?"

The bearded man gave cross and flag to the African behind him who took it with fierce determination and rammed it into the soil. Most of his followers squatted down exhausted, shared out food. Stephen Ambola and Frensch approached.

"Put those damn guns away, who you wanting to kill? We not going to attack you."

"Bantu shouldn't be on this land. Government Experimental Farm. Can't risk trampling the crops with their dirty feet. Get them off, Frensch."

"What's it matter?" cried Ambola. "Old feuds! Forget 'em. We have the News. Don't we?"

Turned to Frensch.

"As though it wasn't staring us right in the face!" Frensch raked over a human skull with his boot, then gestured vaguely and derisively at the veils of colour flickering above the scudding clouds.

"News? What news?" Anxiety clutched Simeon now. He could be tipped any way in his beliefs, out in this vale of bones, in the face of this raggy anachronistic band of people. Fundamentalists. Revivalists. Fanatics. Yes indeed. But had they thought out any better explanation than himself? Or than the Pope - whom the bulk of masonry over Vatican's vaults sheltered with his College of Cardinals and a mass of the faithful, from the roentgen storm?

The Papal Encyclical In Hoc Tempore Mortis issued three months afterwards had been a temporizing instead of a mortifying document - injecting placid placebos into an improbable situation. Pious wishes for the success of the FAO and civilized orgainizations wherever they survived. That was the whole trouble. It was just a programme for survival - while the whole theological dilemma remained unsolved, of the Why and Wherefore of God's permitting some one tenth of His human creation, mainly the one tenth that was white and rich, to survive - while the nine tenths of the Meek and Humble perished. The Why and Wherefore of His refashioning the eye of that needle for the rich merchants to pass through replete with bag and baggage, leaving the starving hordes to perish outside the city walls!

This skinny African in torn shirt and shorts and broken plastic flipflop sandals, but with burning intelligent eyes, stared into Simeon's face. And read it.

"News for those smug in their survival!" he sang. "They did not survive. They been damned by God. Same as you. Same as we. Every man and woman and child alive on Earth today in any land is damned. All are damned. This is Hell now. We are the damned souls. God took the blessed, left His damned behind. He was merciful - He saved so many. Nearly all. All He could save. But He couldn't save all and still be the Just God. Those who live today are those He could not redeem any way. any way."

"Shut your mouth, Ambola," Woltjer snapped. But Ambola wouldn't and didn't.

"Who are the damned souls?"

Andrea Diversley's voice begging further forgivenesses...

"We're a team from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations..."

"So South Africa's in the UN now? Don't miracles just happen? All the miracles of Hell!"

"We're botanists, we're plant geneticists. Don't you see that the irradiated seeds..."

"Ha! Cultivating the plains of Hell. Wasting your time, pretty woman."

Woltjer struck out wildly at Ambola with his gun, but Ambola had already skipped out of the way.

"Apologies, baas - forgot, Hell still has its policemen and its rules!"

"I became aware of the News, you see, Damned People," Frensch interrupted this squabble loudly. "Blessed souls in the skies, look at them, you see them in daylight even."

His finger jerked up, pointing beyond the cottonball clouds at those fearful veils of glory.

"Yes," whispered Simeon in horror. "Yes I do see now."

"Simeon! What are you saying?"

"But I do see, Gunnar. The Pope was wrong. In Hoc Tempore Mortis - so inadequate. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."

"Don't you see, Damned Man, we walk through the valley of the shadow of life! That life of souls up there! Blessed life casts its shadow upon us here below."

"So charged particles are souls?" laughed the Swede scornfully. "Now I've heard everything. It's hysteria. You should expect messianic cults to spring up like weeds in this circumstance, Simeon - but Simeon, we've got a job to do."

But Frensch faced the Swede squarely.

"NOT a messiah cult, Damned Man. For there never will be any Messiah. The Messiah He has come and chosen and gone. Left us behind Him. Yet the authority of the Church still stands - ther's no reason to doubt our faith. Only, our faith is now not in salvation but in damnation. A Church of the Abandonment. The bleached skull flying from the Cross. So we must go forth to waken people, so smug in their survival - when they have been weighed in the balance and found wanting! For above all we still believe!"

"A Church of the Abandonment - yes that fits," Simeon murmured. "Else God would have acted illogically. Would be unjust. And that can't be!"

Frensch stood forward to grasp Simeon by the shoulder.

"Welcome to Damnation, Damned Friend. Help spread this News. We must move on to the towns and other lands now. To tell the Damned of their Damnation."

"Simeon!" the Swede begged. "This is more ridiculous than any of the guilty contortions Andrea performs..."

The Englishwoman darted him a poison glance, moving closer to the Indian geneticist till her body was brushing his.

"It was just a natural disaster, Simeon, don't you see?" soothed Gunnar.

"As has happened before. Happened to the dinosaurs. Yet we can understand and grasp our fate, unlike the great reptiles! That is our humanity!" Shaking his head, Simeon refused to understand.

These petty scratchings in the Earth's devastation of the experimental plantings. A vale of dry bones, where the Wretched and the Meek had been... taken up... to become those dancing ghostly veils of beauty above the clouds. That symbol of Damnation planted in the crumbling soil - the gilded wooden cross with the breeze fluttering out the white skull and the red of Hell's spiritual and mental fires that burn but consume not...\ And oh the ragged, fervent Survivors - the Crusaders!

For this Last Crusade of All - the crusade of complete faith and complete despair!

Woltjer shook his head stupidly as though his ears were full of water, brandished his rifle, blustered. No-one paid much attention.

Andrea twined her arms round the Indian's neck, kissing him furiously before the gaze of Africans and Afrikaners.

Gunnar Marholm had retreated into his cold northern fastness of the mind, blankly gazing across the African soil at the glint of white bones.

Above the clouds danced ghost veils in a rainbow joy of colours.

Then there was such silence, but for the faint sigh of wind. No birds or beasts anywhere.

"Did not oughta have been Sirius!" blustered Major Woltjer into a silence that gulped his words down as a cow a fly, squinting round him, useless rifle at the ready, where no threat loomed.

The Church of the Abandonment squatted silent, eating or resting.

Frensch and Ambola went back to their standard and rested by it.

After a while Simeon too walked over and sat under it.

There was the wind.

And the wild veils aflame in the sky, violet, green and rose.

And the emptiness of the earth.