University of California, Riverside

Eaton Science Fiction Conference



The Bottleneck, by Leonid Leonov


Leonid LeonovLeonid Leonov was born in Kiev, Ukraine and grew up outside of Philadelphia, but came to Los Angeles in 2004 to attend school and pursue his ambition to be a writer. He graduated from Loyola Marymount and is currently at the UC Riverside Creative Writing MFA program with a Fiction emphasis. He credits science fiction for fostering his love of storytelling at an early age, giving him worlds to escape into as soon as he was able to read —followed shortly by an urge to try his hand at making a few worlds of his own.
"The Bottleneck" won the second prize (ex aequo) in the competition.

The bottleneck


He had begun with stomping on an anthill, casting the bulbous army ants through the air. In order to strengthen himself further, he found a stray dog, took it home, watched it mill around his basement, then shot it in the head. The rest of that night he sat on the edge of his bed, staring into space. In the morning, he buried the dog in the dirt behind his house, spending an hour digging into the parched, Tanzanian soil. With the rest of his day stretched out before him like a bottomless abyss, he went into his Spartan living room, with its faded white walls, television, and chair and resumed his daily torture session of watching the news reports from around the world. The famine riots were once again flaring up, senseless violence spasming out as if dictated by nature to compensate for eons of mankind having no natural predators but itself. Wars were being fought where wars were always fought. Skulls were piled up with terrifying, mechanical efficiency. Two cities had already been abandoned, one third-world, the other once a monolith of modernity. Many others were straining under their own weight, the pillars of civilization bending against the possibility of collapse.

As he did every day, Emmanuel Marlowe soaked all of this up, letting the horrors of mankind’s day-to-day existence settle on him like continuous layers of freshly fallen snow. Each atrocity, from the rape gangs to the corruption to the forced resettlement of rightful landowners to the massive hunger scant miles across a border from trashcans full of discarded food, was a snowflake in a blizzard. Ever since he had arrived in Tanzania, a country that had changed its name several times in the previous years depending on the victorious party in a vicious civil war, he had made it a routine to sit in his bungalow, atop a basement that housed the most advanced technology the world had ever known, and watched the television, letting the images wash over him with the regularity of a ticking clock. In a way, it was a distraction from the depravities he himself was suffering. The warlord who had discovered his entry into the country. His broken fingers from the abuse that followed. The death of Analee during the food riots shortly after he had bartered for their release, now buried in the same dirt as the dog. If anything, it strengthened him. He felt shame at the difficulty he had in shooting the stray, especially at a time when humanity butchered itself by the millions without a single regret. Especially when he knew in his heart that he would have to kill again, and not just once. Again and again and again.

That night, he left the bungalow to wander the steaming streets, knowing full well that he was being watched by the warlord’s men. The strays were out in full force, even more emaciated than the town’s inhabitants. He let most of them pass him by, their eyes wide with fear and desperation, some in packs, some solitary as they peeked into sources of light and then quickly vanished into alleys. He finally found one that was clearly suffering, not only missing a leg that had been replaced with hanging scraps of flesh, but an oozing gash was open across its side. It was stumbling towards him, barely able to stand, its eyes rolling loosely around in the sockets, unable to keep its jaw from simply dropping open and swaying from side to side.

Emmanuel took the pistol out of his pocket and approached it. It watched him with unfocused eyes, its head lolling around, pain apparent in the shudders convulsing its mangy body. Emmanuel reminded himself not to hesitate, not to think of anything but the already apparent self-immolation of the world around him. He needed to know in his heart the purity and ease of a mercy-killing. When he was a few feet away, he raised the pistol and fired. The bullet hit the dog in its right ear, sending skull fragments against the poured concrete wall behind it. The impact flung the body backwards to skid across the road, dragging a path of blood behind it. Emmanuel felt nothing but release, for himself and the suffering stray, and he finally knew that he was ready.

He returned home and went to sleep. The next morning, he made himself some coffee and a bowl of noodles. Through the day, until nightfall, he went through his usual routine, his eyes glued to the television news. A hurricane had struck the Caribbean, annihilating the infrastructure and taking basic utilities such as water and electricity away from the inhabitants of a half-dozen nations. Aid had been promised from all of the world’s richest countries, but it was mostly trickling in, attention falling victim to a hastily changing news cycle. A terrorist had blown up a school bus in Turkey, killing all of the children on board. It was in retaliation for a poisoned water supply in northern Iraq that had left thousands crippled or with birth defects. In southern Russia, a nuclear power plant was on fire and no one was quite sure what to do about it. Three miles away from his bungalow, men in jeeps and armed with machetes had descended on a village. No images were shown, but Emmanuel had no difficulty in imagining what happened. Analee had met a similar fate while he was held down by men intent on ransacking his home, oblivious to the lethal electrical current that was going to crack their bodies like a nut when they attempted to open the basement door without putting in the security code. Those men he had not buried. He had simply dumped their bodies into the trash-strewn street outside.

When the sun finally set, Emmanuel de-activated the trap on the basement door and walked down the stairs. He stripped naked and put on a protective suit, thick rubber lined with coils of particular precious metals that ended in a fishbowl helmet. The pistol he slipped into the suit, feeling its frigidity between the rubber and his chest. When he had first bought it, he had planned on using it on himself. He had pressed it against his temple for hours, endlessly tapping the trigger, but he never felt like he was truly ready to put a bullet in the brain of arguably the world’s most intelligent man. It was the same intelligence that kept him from using the machine to prevent Analee’s murder. He had considered the situation, of him bursting through the door with the gun just seconds behind the rioters, a sudden and unexpected hero to both his wife and his past self. It was a fantasy that was the last remaining taste he enjoyed, rolling it around in his mind as one does with a delicious chocolate. Every time, however, he returned to the complete futility of such an exercise. After all, what then? Analee would be alive for some extended period of time, but still in the world that killed her.

He picked up the paired parts of the machine, two and half foot wide rings studded with instruments, and went back up the stairs. He didn’t bother closing the door behind himself nor locking the house as he left. He put the two sections into the back of the beat up Land Rover he had bought for practically pocket change when he and Analee had first arrived. The engine started with some trouble, but there was enough gas left for a one way trip into the mountains. Within a few blocks, the car was prowling through areas cut off from electricity, plunging through darkness where the headlights occasionally illuminated a gaunt face watching him, following the Land Rover as it kicked up dust in its wake. Twice he stopped for children running across the road and both times he cursed himself for leaving open the possibility of an ambush. There was no sin in hitting the children, he reminded himself, not with what he was trying to accomplish, but a few more miles later he lost all sight of houses and people and was unable to test his resolve once again.

After two more hours of driving, he drove off the road and began traveling through a craggy, blood red valley, the headlights revealing flashes of boulders and dried up trees as the Land Rover bounced over the uneven ground. In the distance was Emmanuel’s destination, an ancient peak topped with an antediluvian monolith, a smooth piece of rock that had seen the rise of not just human civilization, but the human race itself. Analee had found it years ago, had told him about it before they ever left the laboratory in Odessa, Texas, as a possible testing site for the machine. There had never been settlements or growth around it, it had remained solid and unmoved for millennia, it was simple to find and return to despite the shifting landscape. That had been months before they disappeared into Africa.

Emmanuel stopped the Land Rover at the base of the mountain, looped the two rings over his shoulder, and began his ascent. Already, he could feel sweat pooling in his rubber boots, a symptom of both the exertion and the heavy Tanzanian night. Rocks bounced away from under his feet and twice he fell to his knees, anxious over the possibility of smashing the delicate rings against the ground. Movement within the suit was limited, but he would need it to prevent his body from being pulled apart, atom by atom, during the travel. Wearing it meant one less trip back to the car before everything was set, and he was certain he was running out of time. He didn’t allow himself a moment to enjoy the irony of the situation.

When he arrived at the monolith, he positioned a ring on one of the sides and turned it on. Lights, flickering, spinning, all of the colors of the spectrum, began dancing around the edge. It looked like a constellation imprinted by God’s own gaze on the side of the dark, African crag. As he walked around the monolith, carrying the other ring in both hands, he could feel his steps getting lighter even as his heart began beating harder. Though the decision of how to use it had taken long, despondent months to coalesce, the machine itself was the fruits of a lifetime of labor, of sacrificing family, friends, children, any semblance of a normal life. The only consolation had been Analee, who had made the same sacrifices not just for the project, but for him.

As he came to the other side, the ring began vibrating in his hands, alerting him to when it was closest to aligning with its partner. Finally, as it began to almost shake out of his hands, he knew it was as close as he could reasonably get it to the proper configuration, completely parallel with its sister ring. When he fumbled for the switch, however, he was suddenly illuminated in the tight beam of a flashlight. His hand inches away from activating it, he straightened up and turned around.

Though silhouetted by the flashlight, the light of the moon revealed enough of Akim that Emmanuel recognized him. He was a youth, made to appear small by the AK-47 he was cradling under one arm, and a member of the warlord’s army. Emmanuel still remembered his conflicted face as he broke two fingers on Emmanuel’s left hand, joint by joint. He must have been the warlord’s watchdog that night, tasked with finally identifying the white man’s motive.

“Akim,” Emmanuel said, his voice steady.

Akim nodded, then pulled the AK-47 up towards Emmanuel. The two stared at each other across the meters of barren rock between them.

“What do you want?” Emmanuel asked, muffled from inside the fishbowl.

“Why you wearing that shit?” the youth asked in halting English.

“I need it for my trip,” Emmanuel said. “Are you here to shoot me? Or just break my fingers again?”

Emmanuel was surprised at his own resolve. He had felt his emotions dry up like a fruit in the sun in the last few months, the juices evaporating out through his pores. He had no fear left in him, no love, no life. The coals that burned within his engine were metamorphosed hate.

Akim was clearly confused, his eyes darting from Emmanuel to the ring and back again. As he did, the barrel of the AK-47 swayed in his hands. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to solve everything, Akim. Are you going to try to stop me?”

“The Big Man said I gotta take you in. Big Man wants to know what you’re doing out here.”

“I’m helping you.”

“What is dat?”

“This? It’s a time machine.”

Akim’s eyes widened. He walked closer, peering at the ring.

“It’s much more impressive when it’s turned on,” Emmanuel said and reached for the ring. Akim immediately raised his rifle again, nervous.

“Don’t be moving.”

“I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to help you.”

“Yeah?” Akim snorted. “How you be doing that?”

“Akim, I’m going to take your pain away. Everybody’s pain.”

Before Akim could react, Emmanuel reached over and flicked the switch on the ring. Once again, the lights flashed and swirled around the edges. The space within the circle became solid, as smooth of a veneer as the calmest lake, but buzzing with the sound of a power line and as yellow as sunshine.

Akim stared at it, stunned. “What’s happening?”

“It’s a portal, son. A one way trip back thousands of years.”

“Why you wanna go back?”

“I know of a time and a place that is very special. Right here, sixty thousand years ago. It’s my one chance to put a stop to humanity.”

“You gonna kill everybody?”

“No. You can’t kill what was never born. It will all simply never happen. The war, the death, the pain, the hunger. The cruelty. The way we’ve evolved simply to find newer and betters ways of hurting each other. No more pain, Akim. No more death. No more hunger. Akim, it’s a mercy-killing.”

The youth stepped forward again, having difficulty juggling both the rifle and the flashlight. “You crazy, man.”

“Actually, ask anyone that knows, but I’m usually considered the smartest man in the world. That’s why I’m not using this to go anywhere but back. There, I’m gonna do the right thing. I’m going to put all of us out of our misery. You see, Akim, humanity evolved because of cataclysm. We’d live a million years unchanged, then something would happen, almost all of us would die off, and we’d emerge like a butterfly a whole new species. Australopithecus, homo habilis, homo erectus, homo sapiens, each one was pushed and percolated into becoming something new. The last time it happened, what shaped our race to become what it is today, happened right here. This land was our cocoon while everything else died, and we emerged from it full of every sin imaginable. Self-destructive, uncaring, vain, selfish. We made a wrong turn.”

Once again, Akim came closer. Emmanuel could see his eyes now, could see them hardening. “Don’t you agree, Akim?”

“I don’t know anything about all that.”

“I know, son,” Emmanuel said and prepared to jump. “But it’s not up to you. It’s up to me. Sixty thousand years and we can finally wipe the slate clean.”

He didn’t see the bullet, but he heard the gunshot and assumed it must have narrowly missing him. It was fitting that his last second in the present would be spent in violence. Emmanuel straightened his body, kicked up his feet, and as soon as the rubber soles of his boots touched the glowing disk he was pulled in. There was no worry that Akim would follow him, the machine had enough power for just one push, just one catapulting strain against the very nature of the universe.

Theoretically, Emmanuel spent sixty thousand unaware years in stasis, traveling back at the same speed he had spent his life going forward. He was locked in a memory as a fly becomes trapped in amber, a millisecond moment of dancing with Analee to the sounds of ‘Que Sera Sera,’ their bare feet impervious to the cold kitchen tile, the lines of her body melting into his.

To his perception, it was over instantaneously. He flew out of the monolith with the same kinetic energy he had entered it, flung out rigid until he fell upon the gray ground surrounded by a murky daylight.

The world he entered was decidedly hadean. Rolling plains of what were once lush grasslands, and would be lush once again in the future, but were now smothered with ash. The sun shone less bright. The dreary remnants of a cataclysm hung in the air. The world had been torn asunder, the peace and quiet collapsing in one moment as the Earth shook and broke, nature’s anger and fury issuing forth. The peaceful mellow that stretched before Emmanuel now was one that was most scarred ten thousand miles away, but the lingering pain could be seen on every dried riverbank.

Recently, though only on a geological scale, on the island eventually known as Sumatra, in an area that became Lake Toba, the Earth had suffocated itself and coughed. It had been a megavolcano, a hellish process during which the planet unleashed enough pressure upon the surface to annihilate a small island, and was the most powerful explosion within the previous twenty-five million years. Over 670 cubic miles of ash and rock were vomited out onto the surface, much of it entering the atmosphere. On the Indian subcontinent thousands of miles away, ash covered the ground fifteen centimeters thick. The sun faded, its light unable to penetrate the dusty ring that suddenly formed around the planet, and a new ice age began, one of the last ones the human race would face. Humanity had, by then, spread throughout the globe, but the intense change in climate in other locales was too extreme for the burgeoning species. One by one, the tribes that had braved desert heat and river currents to proliferate throughout the continents began to die off, unable to adapt to the sudden loss of livestock and fauna. In effect, the entire race was about to go extinct, except for one tribe tucked away on the continent of Africa that had against all odds found a haven. Humanity effectively bottlenecked. There was nothing particularly impressive about them. They simply were, and they simply did, and every one of the billions of wretched creatures that would eventually call themselves mankind were descended from them.

Emmanuel stripped off the suit, picked up the pistol, and shivered under the pale sun as he emptied out the built up sweat. Even with the knowledge of the calamity that had befallen the planet, he was surprised by how cold it was under a noonday sun. Quickly putting the suit back on, he placed the pistol down on the ground and wrapped his arms around himself, shivering against the rubber.

There was a cave, several miles away. Its discovery during Emmanuel’s era had proven to be one of the major anthropological breakthroughs in modern times. The carbon dating had placed its settlement squarely during the time of the Lake Toba explosion, a prime candidate for the home of the one, resilient tribe that had survived. As soon as he felt warm again, despite the slick, wet rubber, Emmanuel began taking stumbling steps in its direction. The gun shook in his shivering hand and he wondered what would happen if he was unable to reach the cave before nightfall, whether he’d be forced to sleep on the ground and then awake to find something futilely gnawing on his rubber-suited leg. Essentially, the same kind of night that had wiped out most of the species in the recent decades.

The whistling winds tearing through the valley were pregnant with particles, not just ashy dust but clumps of dried soil picked up and tossed about. Marlowe shouldered his way through them, a distant clump of hills his destination. For most of the walk, his mind was a blank. He wondered if this is how assassins felt, or hunters, or even doctors before surgery. This was, after all, not murder, but a culling. A simple, rational decision, like removing a tumor or performing an abortion.

In the distance, small, dark forms were milling about near a shallow, stagnant pond. They moved around in pulsating bursts of motion, as if bowing down to the ground before them. Emmanuel spent an hour on hands and knees, crawling towards them while remaining out of sight. The sun was setting behind him as he finally approached them. Except for a few pubescent males, nearly all of them were female, hunched over even when without a baby at their breast. They were examining the bushes around the pond for fruit, carrying anything they found to a second group of women that ground the findings down with swift strikes from heavy rocks. The men were likely out hunting, led by their chief or alpha male. Already, human society had stratified.

Emmanuel lay on top of the hill and watched the women work. All of them looked battered by the elements, a collection of the filthy and pathetic, with worn flesh and sparse teeth but not a single gray hair among them. The only protection from the wind and cold were robes of tattered hide, their hairy bodies peeking out on occasion. When the men returned from the hunt, a dozen or so individuals, they appeared even worse. They looked no better than the strays that would walk those same hills half a million generations later. They were led by one massive individual, whose scars Emmanuel could see even given the distance and the thick pelt of both his own and animal hair that covered his body. This was the chief, the alpha male, who carried a thick spear in one hand and was a head taller than the malnourished rest, though still shorter than Emmanuel.

The hunt had clearly turned up nothing in the way of food, and as women and children ran up to the hunters, the alpha male batted them away. One woman and several children, possibly his own, lingered until he barked viciously at them, causing the woman to shield the children with her own withered body. The seed of humanity. Emmanuel himself had sprung forth from those loins.

As the sun finally set, several of the men set about lighting a fire in the mouth of a nearby cave and the rest of the tribe, fewer than fifty people in all, followed them in. As sparks from the flint created little bits of lightning around the huddled mass, Emmanuel continued to creep closer and closer, pistol gripped tightly in his hand. He could tell now that many of the children and women huddled closer to the alpha male than the other men, who collectively sat further away, and began to suspect that many of the children were sired by this tyrant, the biggest and the boldest, unknowingly the king of all humanity. As the evening continued, he terrorized the others, barking and abusing them, clearly in a hostile rage. The others, the male castoffs of evolution, unable to find a mate at a time when they were continually proven to be physically weaker, looked moping and powerless. They kept their eyes to the ground or occasionally glanced at each other with frustration visible even on their primitive, hirsute faces. It would now be possible, Emmanuel decided, that, after he put a bullet into the tyrant, the meek would finally inherit the Earth.

As the cold crept in and the fire faded, the tribe began retreating into the cave to sleep. Emmanuel followed right up until the cave mouth, peeking his helmeted head past the edge. The tribe had gone in only a few meters, where a few small fires were lit as they clustered together to share warmth and thick, hidebound blankets. Spears and stone hatchets littered the ground, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice, and Emmanuel knew he was going to be walking through a minefield of toes and hands. Stepping on any would cause the whole cave to erupt, just as they would if some predator slipped in, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to escape the ensuing chaos.

One by one, as the cave began plunging into darkness, the tribe seemed to slip into sleep. As they did, Emmanuel stripped off his protective suit, so that he could move as stealthily as possible and entered, pistol at the ready. Slowly, he moved past the outstretched legs and avoided the bundled up blankets entirely. The smell of the bodies was almost unbearable, burning his untrained nostrils as it mixed with the remnants of campfire smoke and piled up waste. The opportunity to look up was minimal, though when he did he was surprised to find the cave walls alive with artwork. It seemed a frivolous waste, since whatever they had mashed up for paint could have probably also been eaten, but above the sleeping heads of the tribe, flickering in and out of sight by the light of the little fires, were galloping gazelles and stick men running through fields of grass greener than any they could have possibly seen in their lifetime. From floor to ceiling, images of the tribe’s past flourished like the dreamscapes they were then busy exploring.

Emmanuel tried to ignore these and concentrated on the sleeping faces. Though he kept getting deeper and deeper into the cave, none of them seemed to be the tyrant. Soon, the sleeping forms petered out and Emmanuel was left perplexed, unsure of how he had lost his quarry. Then, further into the cave, he could see a speck of moonlight, another opening out into the world. The cave floor cutting into his bare feet, the cold finally slowing down his naked body, he pressed forward, for once wishing for the tribe’s hairy torsos and callused limbs.

When Emmanuel finally caught a glimpse of the chief, he was standing outside the cave, a few meters away from the opening. Unlike the other side, which opened up to a slope, the other end was essentially a dead end, a small ledge populated by a few boulders, its sides sheer drops to the ground. There was no food there, no break from the night's winds, and Emmanuel immediately became suspicious of the chief's reasoning. Perhaps he simply wanted a lofty position, embracing both his solitude and his height above the plains. The beginnings of egomania.

Emmanuel readied his pistol and pressed on. As he got closer, however, he realized that the chief was coiled into a strange shape, sitting listlessly on top of one of the boulders, one leg dangling beneath him. His hands, so twisted with rage for most of the day, now occupied a position on his lap, limp against his hairy thighs. His shoulders were slumped, quivering with a different sort of tension than usual, and his face expressed the biggest difference: His mouth was agape, with only small movements as short, shallow breaths escaped him. His eyes were wide and glittering, and Emmanuel had the distinct impression that the man was about to break down and cry. Nonetheless, the chief did not, nor did he ever shift position. Only when Emmanuel followed his gaze did he realize how much he had not noticed while he had hunted the tribe. Unlike among the cities where Emmanuel had spent most of his life, and even the nights spent on a lonesome farm in his youth, this world, prehistoric, was lit up by stars. With not even a campfire anywhere on the planet, the night sky was the only source of light and it was brilliant. Not only were the stars visible in a way that Emmanuel could never remember seeing before, but the dust that still lurked in the air after the Toba explosion caused all of them to blink and shimmer, a cascade of radiance across the sky. And so Emmanuel found Adam, sitting by himself on a cliffside, his body limp and eyes sparkling, awed by the universe while, below them, small mammals scampered through the bush.

For the first time in months, something quivered in him. He sat down, let the pistol fall limply from his hand. Some day, it would dissolve into the dirt where he dropped it. Looking out at the landscape before him, he wondered if there was a single other eye trained, even aimlessly, up at the night sky. Or a single other hand, stained with paint. Or a single other mind capable of missing a lover not because they were gone, but because they weren’t there to share the moment, this moment. Once again, a bottleneck had squeezed something new into the world, not pain or suffering or evil, but marvel.

Though tempted to join the chief up on the rock, unintimidated by the man’s size or authority, he slinked away into the darkness, eager to bury, even symbolically, one last thing.

 


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