This story originally appeared on Pseudopod, #538
Imagine a man on top of the world, with a sharp knife.
His name is Tenzin Tsheri and he hesitates before saving the world, again.
He has been here before: sitting on a comfortable rock on Ngadi Lonzo’s gray summit, waiting for the mountain climbers below to begin the final ascent. He has led them up the mountain, though it is late in the climbing season. (It is always late in the season when climbers come to summit Ngadi Lonzo. This late, there are few tourists climbing any of the Himalayas.) He looks at his knife, then at the men and women attached to his guide rope, like fuzzy ripe melons on a red nylon vine.
Tenzin chews a chocolate mint Clif protein bar and looks out into the future. On top of Ngadi Lonzo, he can see that future, a ghost of the present just visible under the bright crispness of what’s coming.
When the climbers are crossing the final ridge, he will cut the nylon rope that anchors them to this world. In one graceful movement, the climbers will slip down the mountain face, the jagged ice wall sandpapering them beyond recognition. Some will scream. An untied ice ax and a loose pair of goggles will pinwheel across the bright empty sky. That will be the climbers’ only trace or echo. Soon, Tenzin will throw even these remainders down into the crevasse after them.
That is how Tenzin will save the world.
Tenzin has done this before with other climbing groups. He feels no tremor of remorse over these impending deaths. (They have already died in the future that he sees.) His family has always kept Ngadi Lonzo’s secret from those who would wake up the void inside the mountain.
They are easy to recognize, these cultists who worship Khyah, the Empty Throne. (These climbers give the void a name, Khyah, and they think they understand it.) His father taught Tenzin to recognize them. Though, in their own way, these cultists are much like other mountain climbers, like those wealthy Americans Tenzin met that one summer when he helped his cousins lead tours up Everest.
That Everest summer, Tenzin noticed that all mountain climbers share a fierce joy in their eyes, a glimmer that persists beyond all exhaustion. But the cultists have a certain hollowness to their eyes, to their smiles, though Tenzin also knows it is a horror cliche to say so. (In the coldest winter months, Tenzin stays indoors and reads for days; Clive Barker is his favorite.) These days, Tenzin doesn’t even need to see their faces to identify Khyah cultists: they carry their bodies like cargo, like men and women in transit or already dead.
The climbers are on the final ridge now. From where he sits, Tenzin can see the last man in the line touch his free hand to the hidden sacrificial knife that he has carried all this way. It is hidden, but Tenzin knows it is there. He sees it now, in the future, in the man’s hand, in Tenzin’s own belly, his blood steaming and scentless in the thin mountain air like a cup of instant ramen without the flavor packet added.
Tenzin wants to laugh at the image or cry.
He touches his knife to the rope. Tenzin feels the vibrations of their hands through his knife. This is how he saves the world, as he has done before. A single long heartbeat later, his shadow on the summit moves to catch up. The shadow knife touches the shadow rope, vibrating with the hands of shadow people.
Now, he tells himself. Do it now.
In the future, they are already dead, tumbling into the crevasse, broken on the crevasse floor. Tenzin takes another bite of his protein bar. Or the same bite. He is never full anymore.
Tenzin considers the sudden shock of the fall’s end. Down there in the cold and quiet of the crevasse, the preserved bodies tell a sedimented history of climbers, from box cameras to reindeer boots to down jackets to clip-on stainless steel crampons. (Cultists change their appearance with the times. Or: no matter how much they want the world to end, they don’t want to be cold on the way there.)
In the dark and cold of the crevasse, things remain what they once were. Down there, old books with hideous designs wait to be gently thawed and read. Down in the ice, dead men’s dreams sleep as if in museum displays, untouched. Even the void slows and becomes a crystal you could hold in your hand, refracting broken light, bending it into the far corners of the world.
This is another future Tenzin can see now, and because he can see it now, he always could see it: in this future, he jumps into the crevasse, into the windless quiet, and the blue darkness swallows him in increments as he falls, a comet’s tail of snow trailing him down.
(None of us really know Tenzin, but many of us know that particular dream: to be swallowed into the earth, a hole opening just for me, just for you. The hole closes after us, erasing any trace of where we were, not even the hole of our absence. After us, the world goes on.
(That’s the difference between us and the cultists: When we disappear into the hole, we dream the world goes on. When you start wishing to take the world into the hole with you, then Khyah comes to you in your dreams. In your dreams, Khyah shows you the empty summit of Ngadi Lonzo. When you wake, you find a knife under your pillow. An old knife. Cold.
(Bring it to Ngadi Lonzo. And as you cross the final ridge, ask yourself the only question that matters anymore: will Tenzin cut the rope and send this knife down into the crevasse again or is this the day that he lets the future happen?)
Tenzin could jump into the crevasse, but he won’t because it takes too much feeling to jump, and Tenzin has a numbness spiked through him. He can’t remember the last time he really felt something.
In his pocket, Tenzin finds a Clif protein bar: chocolate mint, his favorite once. He checks his pocket for the wrapper of the bar he just finished, but can’t find it. Tenzin Tsheri feels himself settle back into the moment, like an icicle melting into a basin. He looks down at his climbers, pulling themselves along the rope, almost to the final ridge now. His knife settles on the rope, like the needle of a record player finding its groove after skipping.
A wave of deja vu shivers through Tenzin. He savors this one decisive moment, the density of his feelings bringing him back to it. Or perhaps it is all his years on Ngadi Lonzo, so close to Khyah, that makes him feel as if he’s lived this moment before. Or perhaps, most depressingly, this moment is like so many he’s lived before and will continue to live through: climbers, crevasse, climbers, crevasse.
Khyah is a god-thing of emptiness and, in a way, Tenzin is its high priest.
In one future, Tenzin lets the climbers wake Khyah and show the world the reality of that yawning blue emptiness.
In another, he cuts the rope and lets the world go on and keeps that emptiness inside him.
Tenzin sees both futures, considering them like paths across a sheet of ice. The high glare off that imagined ice sheet blinds him, turning the world into a great bright emptiness. From his seat on top of the world, Tenzin looks down and sees nothing below him. He hesitates with his knife on the rope.
(A long heartbeat later, his shadow moves, either following him or moving away.)