Consciousness returned to me slowly, coalescing in fuzzy little whitish clumps somewhere behind my eyes, where I supposed my brain should be. Something hard and plastic was wedged between my teeth. The reeking stench in the air gave me the distinct impression that someone was cremating a partially decomposed cat.
My name isn't Bob, I said, or thought I said, until I realized that my brain seemed to be disconnected from my mouth. I turned my head slightly, very deliberately and very gently stretched my facial muscles, moving my lower jaw like a cow chewing a cud. The hard plastic thing between my teeth fell out.
I forced my eyes open a slit and harsh white sunlight lashed through my eyelids, searing my pupils to tiny pinpoints. My name isn't Bob, I thought a little more forcefully, and tried to force the words between my lips, but all that came out was...
Silence. Perfect silence. Not only could I have heard a pin drop, but I probably could have heard the angels on the head of it dancing. The wind stopped blowing, I heard a harsh gasp of breath, somehow I got the impression that the sun stopped in the sky. Not even a blip of tinnitus was there in the silence that defied all existence. I tried to speak again.
There, the sun was moving again. A hot breeze burned my cheek. Someone near me spoke softly. "It's okay Bob, it's over..."
What's over? I thought, then the voice added, "...for now, anyway."
I slitted my eyes open a little more. The pallid sky was slowly spinning, winding down, coming to a stop. I shielded the sun's glare from my eyes with my hand. Very slowly, and very carefully, I propped myself up on my elbow and sat up. I looked painfully in the general direction that I'd heard the voice coming from. A vague brownish blur shifted, split in two, united and clarified into loose brown curls of hair framing a pale freckled face. Upon the bridge of its nose hung a pair of huge black-framed spectacles with lenses that made a Coke bottle look like a thin sheet of Plexiglas. Slightly buck-toothed, this face was, and a pale freckled hand rose to wedge the glasses more firmly onto its nose. My gaze traveled across and down. The person was wearing a ragged, off-white t-shirt and faded, threadbare blue jeans.
I croaked, tried to swallow, worked my tongue for a few seconds, and finally managed, "My name isn't Bob."
"Ha!" the person barked, his voice slightly shrill and unpleasantly nasal. "Good one, Bob. Now cut the cracks and get hold of yourself. It's not quite over yet."
My legs still felt half-ethereal, too insubstantial to hold my weight. I surveyed our surroundings from where I sat. The other person had moved away a few feet, and stood on the edge of a green mound: a nearly perfectly round green mound, in the center of which was a hole, into which was inserted a flag. My legs straddled the flag, and a discarded golf club--a putter--lay beside my hand. A golf club. A golf green. We had been playing golf? Faint markings in the grass showed a circle at the mound's circumference, a circle that enclosed a five-pointed star...a pentagram?...along with some other squiggles that were disturbingly familiar. Beyond the mound was--how shall I say it? Desolation.
No vegetation. No animals, no birds, no people. Nothing. Just great smoking hollows that gaped at the sky, like mouths opened in surprise at an unexpected death. Sure, my memories were hazy. Okay, I had no real memories to speak of, but I was pretty sure that things were not supposed to look like this.
"What happened?" At the time, it seemed like the question I most needed to ask.
The person with the curly brown hair turned slowly, staring at me uneasily, as if he had suddenly realized he was talking to a stranger. "You really don't remember?"
I shook my head as if I could rattle all the loose pieces back into place. The stench in the air seemed to redouble itself, assaulting my nostrils with an unholy reek. I glanced at the object that had fallen from my mouth. A pipe. Just a pipe, straight stem, a narrow golden band between the stem and the shank, a thin tendril of blue-gray smoke rising from the ash.
"For Chrissake, Bob, don't let the pipe go out!" The nerdish person snatched the pipe and wedged it between my teeth. I sucked in some smoke and almost retched. The pipe flew from my lips as I coughed spasmodically, my lungs seemingly intent on turning themselves inside out. Finally it subsided, and I glared at the pipe, its ashes spilled and its flame cooling as it lay like some dismembered extremity in the soft grass.
The brown-haired person stared at me, dumbfounded, his mouth agape. I stared back, determined to demand an explanation. I pinned him with my gaze and commanded, "Uhmm..."
"Ivan," he said.
"Ivan," I began again. "Okay, Ivan, who are you?"
"I'm, well..." he hesitated. "I'm your caddy. Sort of."
"Okay," I agreed. That sounded logical enough. Now for the tricky bit. "Who am I?"
His mouth fell open again, then shut self-consciously. "You're...Bob."
"And?" I insisted.
He shrugged. "I think we'd better get going." He turned and began to walk cautiously into the wasted land around us.
"Just a minute!" I called. He stopped. I looked around. "If we were playing golf, where are my clubs?"
It seemed he turned a slightly whiter shade of pale. "They were..." He looked around hopelessly. "...outside the circle...when it happened." He shrugged. "The only thing that saved us was the Elder Sign." He took a deep breath and sighed. "We'd better go, see if there are any survivors."
Survivors? I looked around myself again. As far as I could see, there was nothing. Just scorched desert and holes blasted like some cosmic nuclear testing ground. I didn't know who I was, what had happened, and all I had to my name--which I wasn't sure of anyway--was an old pipe that smelled like a rat had died in it, a bent putter, and a caddy named Ivan. If this was all I had, it was coming with me. I put the now cool pipe carefully into the pocket of my slacks and heaved myself to my feet with the putter. The earth rocked under me, and I almost fell. Suddenly Ivan was at my side, helping me to stand.
"I'm okay, I'm okay." I shook him off and wobbled forward, using the putter as a cane. An idea suddenly occurred to me so I glanced into the hole in the center of the green. A golf ball. Okay, so now I had a caddy, a pipe, a bent putter, and a golf ball. Better and better. I walked away. Ivan adjusted his spectacles and followed.
I don't know how long we walked, but it didn't seem to matter because everything looked the same. The earth still retained its general contour, a rise here that might have once been a hill, a dip there that might have once been a valley. But still, there was nothing. Just burnt sand, and a hot wind. Time didn't seem to run right. It lurched in spasmodic clumps of temporal inanity. A few seconds, an hour, it didn't make much difference. After a while we came to what had once been a river. There was still a bridge across it, where a highway must have once been. My foggy memories told me that it had been a highway not long before. A brief flashing image of the convenience store that had once been there flickered in my mind.
There was nothing in the river that could be accurately referred to as water. A thick, viscous sludge flowed slowly and slimily between the banks. It gurgled and boiled, and something that probably had once been a fish slowly surfaced, glared at me with an empty, baleful red eye, and slowly sank again. Occasionally large bubbles expanded and popped, releasing a stench like a million rotted eggs. Brimstone, if I wasn't mistaken--burnt sulfur. But where did it come from, and why was the bridge still intact? I asked Ivan as much.
"He wants us to see everything. He wants us to be able to go anywhere we feel like, just so we can see what's happened. It's our punishment for defying him."
My mind spun with questions, but no answers fell into the gaps.
"Who is 'he'? And how do you know all this?"
He chose to answer the second question. "Because he told us--he let us know, anyway--before he...before he struck."
"Okay," I said. "And now, once more, who is 'he'?"
Ivan glanced at me, again with an expression of utter hopelessness. He shrugged again, his answer to every question. He sniffed, adjusted his glasses, and stared at the ground. Then he mumbled a name that shocked me with an instant of ultimate, paralyzing fear.
For an instant the sky seemed to darken, the earth rocked and rumbled, for a second I thought I was standing upside down, suspended over the livid sky like a fly on a ceiling. Then the world righted itself and I sat heavily in the dirt, dust puffing out from under me. It was all starting to come back now.
Nyarlathotep. The crawling chaos. He had come out of Egypt, to save the world, he said. More fanatical than Hitler, more stubborn than Hussein, more dangerous than anyone before him. Purification, he said. The world must be purified. People began to listen to him, then to follow him. Soon the movement became a religion. A religion born of horror and self-annihilation.
I got my feet back under me and we crossed the bridge. Survivors--we had to know if anyone was left. As we left the river of filth behind, I looked back once, and with a sickening feeling realized it was flowing uphill.
The river of slime had fallen behind the horizon when the sun suddenly set with an abruptness that left me dizzy. A hot darkness buzzed around us, an absolute darkness that was completely alien to a normal night. A darkness like the inside of a cave on a world that had no sun--and me without my Zippo. A few minutes later the sun rose again in almost the same place it went down. Crazy. The laws of the universe had been violated. We walked.
"We should be getting near the city soon," said Ivan. "Maybe there's some ruins left, or something. Maybe we can find some water."
I hoped so. I was about to parch. My tongue felt thick and dead like an old stick. I tried to moisten my mouth and mumble around my tongue.
"Is the whole planet like this?"
Ivan stopped and stared around. I think he would have cried if he could have spared the moisture. He looked sadly at me, and said probably yes.
"Jees." I couldn't think of anything fitting to say.
"We might have stood against him," Ivan went on. "But his damn cultists summoned...well, you know."
"No, I don't." I tapped my head. "Remember?"
Ivan looked at his feet in dejection. The name he whispered was almost inaudible: "Azathoth."
My mind went blank. Not the comfortable, dazed blankness of a good yoga or marijuana buzz, but a terrifying, numbing, deadening blank. I could only whisper one word. "Damn."
Then everything I had forgotten rushed back into the void in my mind. I reeled under an almost physical impact of returning memories. It all came back.
Azathoth. The Demon--excuse me--Daemon Sultan. The blind idiot god that writhes mindlessly at the center of the universe, beyond what mere humans think of as space and time. The alien, unknowable thing that exists only for destruction, the heart and soul of which is Nyarlathotep. I might have known.
"But wait a minute," I said suddenly. Ivan looked at me sharply.
"It isn't time yet, is it? I mean, the stars aren't right yet. Right?"
"Right," he agreed. "It was all because of those damn cultists--the idiots. They summoned him...it."
I held the putter like a quirt, tapping the club end against the palm of my left hand. "Okay," I said. Let's go."
I set off with a purpose, Ivan following in my wake. It wasn't too far to where the city had been, I now knew. I just wanted to know one thing first--before I did what I had to do. I knew the earth would get destroyed by these alien god-monsters someday, but dammit, it wasn't time yet.
We saw the ruins for a long time before we reached them. The absence of vegetation coupled with the relatively flattened landscape made for a terrific field of vision. Probably just another thoughtful little touch of good old Nyarlathotep, making sure we could see the destruction without obstruction. I called out as we approached, but saw nothing. Not until I called out three times did anyone appear, and then very timidly. I didn't blame them. They'd just seen their world get wasted.
Okay, it looked like he had left survivors. I surmised that there were others in other parts of the world, to make sure he'd have plenty of humans left to torment. Without humans, he wouldn't really have any reason for existing. I could feel the fear coming from them in palpable waves of terror--the fear that would help me summon Nyarlathotep. Somehow their terror strengthened me, shoring up my resolve. I walked away from the ruins, up to the crest of what might have once been a hill. A wave of dizziness washed over me as I felt that I was walking downhill, though my eyes clearly showed me the opposite. The air grew hotter still and the sky changed color as a storm gathered swiftly...too swiftly. With the putter in my hand I looked into the neon-green sky."You got a pen?" I asked.
Ivan did. I began to scribble diagrams in the surface of the golf ball that I had been carrying in my pocket. Diagrams that few people would recognize, and those who did might shudder at the implications--if they didn't run away screaming first. As I mumbled certain words from a forgotten language the energy flowed through my fingertips and across and around the ball. The pen was only a focal point anyway, a tool for channeling the true power. It wasn't long before the golf ball was wrapped in a multi-dimensional web of energy that burned, twisted and swirled with a brilliant darkness. I stopped just short of finishing. One more word. One more word only...
"NYARLATHOTEP!!!" I gave it everything I had.
Thunder rumbled. The sky darkened. Weird glowing violet clouds scudded and boiled across the green sky, dripping scattered greasy drops that sizzled and burned wherever they touched. One struck me and I screamed the name again. Then he appeared.
I cannot describe what he looked like. Part of my mind went into hiding, refusing to witness what stood above and before me, towering into the sky, scraping its topmost parts against the stars, howling soundlessly into the void of outer space. Another part of my mind whirled with a bizarre reverse vertigo from the intense height of the thing. The earth shuddered beneath its weight, bending to fit strange dimensions that it was never meant to fit. Rainbows of unearthly hues rippled through the air as the titanic alien violated reality. My mind was utterly consumed with the awesome immensity of the thing. It had a thousand forms, they say, and this wasn't a friendly one.
In spite of being almost overwhelmed by disorientation verging on insanity, I found myself yelling at it. "It isn't time! You idiot! It isn't time!"
It howled. Its single five-lobed red eye glared down at me. The thought that it could be focusing on me specifically was almost too much. I staggered under its glare. Ivan caught me and propped me back up. From somewhere I heard maniacal laughter, but I couldn't tell if it was me or Ivan.
I scooped up a small mound of sand and put the golf ball on top of it. The putter was still bent but I tried to straighten it across my knee.
There is no sane reason for me surviving to tell this story, yet survive I did. Perhaps the key word here is sane, for I am told that I was often regarded as crazy, and still am regarded as such by some. Perhaps my sanity had already left me when it happened, or perhaps I'm just living proof that when a man gets mad enough, he can take on anything. Or maybe I was just too stupid. Somewhere amidst the cosmic howling, the cackling laughter and the creaking, warping earth, a tendril of thought reached out and touched me.A galaxy of sorrow and anger poured through my soul, and I gasped with a bottomless scream of inhalation that seemed to never end. Nyarlathotep had been formed by alien minds so dedicated to hate that they were forever beyond the understanding of such simple, imperfect creatures as humans. Formed for one reason only: to torment and destroy humanity. And for that one reason, it could not destroy us utterly. A few of us would always be kept alive just so it had a reason to exist.
It was full of rage and sorrow and bent on destruction. Its soundless howling lament became a shriek that descended out of the supersonic into realms that humans can hear, then beyond into the subsonic--a thunderous roaring scream that rattled the earth and made the air vibrate with horror. I stood over the makeshift tee made from sand and lined up on the ball. My feet well apart, eyes on the ball, I lifted the putter and swung, screaming the final word.
The ball rocketed upward like it was shot from a cannon, somehow seemingly accelerating as it gained altitude, leaving an arc of dripping, unidentifiable colors as it rocketed straight into the blazing eye of Nyarlathotep--the eye that burned like five red exploding suns.
There was a blast that singed my eyebrows off and sent me tumbling backward into heat, sand, and oblivion.
* * * * *"Bob?"
It was Ivan again, trying to bring me back around. I opened my eyes, squinted against the blue of the sky--the blue of the sky...
I sat up abruptly. "He's gone."
Ivan grinned. "Yep. You did it. I don't know how, but you did it."
I stood. "Hot damn," I said, and grinned back. I didn't know how either, but I knew I needed a smoke. I reached into my slacks pocket and extracted my pipe, slightly scuffed but none the worse for wear. Ivan produced a bag of something that looked vaguely like tobacco and I tamped some of it down into the bowl. I grinned again, then clenched the stem in my teeth and sucked. The herb in the bowl spontaneously ignited and I inhaled a deep lungful of fresh, sweet smoke. I looked around.
Where Nyarlathotep had been was another blasted spot--black, wasted, burnt, a crater where the bane of mankind had once stood--forced back into his hellish netherworld. The air was fresher, the sun was in the right place, but still I was surrounded by miles of desert. Desert in front of me, desert behind me. I surveyed my surroundings, and suddenly my smile grew even wider. As far as I could see, back the way I had come, slogging through the loose sand and burned earth, all the way to the horizon, it was the same.
Flowers were sprouting from my footprints.