Strata

Melanie has a lot to live up to: a famous mother and an even more famous grandmother, a legend of palaeontology. Part of her wants to follow in her footsteps, but a bizarre and impossible discovery threatens to undo over a century of established scientific knowledge.

Melanie played compulsively with the pendant that hung on a thin chain around her neck. She’d had it since she was young – her mother gave it to her when she was sent off to school, as she’d been given it by her mother at precisely the same juncture in her life. The necklace had a story. Melanie quite often forgot she was wearing it since it was a more or less permanent part of her wardrobe but on the odd occasions she actually paid attention to it and looked down at the little brass pendant in mild confusion, as if discovering it for the first time, the story would come back to her. Her grandmother got it when she was little. It wasn’t very valuable – just a tacky bit of brass costume jewellery really – but someone had bought it for her for some forgotten reason. It was in the shape of an ammonite shell, like the fossil. Melanie’s grandmother, as a young child, thought it was a snail. But she was very intelligent and, as she grew older and studied it more closely, she’d realised it was supposed to be something else. At some point she’d asked a teacher about it (her grandmother’s childhood hadn’t been an easy one, and it wasn’t the sort of thing she’d have been able to talk to her busy mother about) and hence been directed to a library to learn about fossils.

That, so the story went, was the beginning of a love affair with palaeontology and geology that catapulted Charity Omotoso from an overcrowded inner-city terrace in the West Midlands to the hallowed halls of professional academia. She’d had to fight every step of the way, through the tumultuous decades of the mid-20th Century alongside and against the various political movements that sought first to oppress her, then free her but not on her own terms and had finally found a place for an outspoken second-generation Nigerian feminist with a tongue at least as sharp as her brilliant mind. She had now at last ascended to the unassailable status of national treasure, the formidable matriarch of the earth sciences, popular science writer, vigorous debater, rabble-rouser, looming figure over unnumbered lives, not least Melanie’s own.

It was no wonder she was thinking about her grandmother. As she reflexively examined the ammonite pendant, running her fingers across the folds and grooves of its whorled shell, she tried to shut out the rest of the world. It was hard though. A warm breeze filled her nose with the sharp salt tang of the sea and there was no ignoring the gentle whoosh-whoosh of the waves breaking on the rocks some thirty feet below the limestone slab on which she was currently perched, legs drawn up beneath her, unruly black hair momentarily tamed by a sun hat she’d forced onto her head. Melanie was not a hat person, but they’d trekked here across exposed hills in the glaring sun with that wind coming in off the Channel and, well, she liked to think she was a practical person. A shadow fell over her and she glanced up to see Ms Johnston staring down at her. “Hello, miss,” she said.

“Melanie Omotoso-Clark,” her teacher said in a tone of mock-severity, “aren’t you going to come and join the expedition?”

Melanie slid the pendant back into her top and looked across at her classmates. They were all scrambling about at the other end of the big limestone shelf that they’d come to see, combing through piles of shale and investigating bare rock faces with more enthusiasm than skill. Of course, the science was just an excuse. It was a field trip, which meant packing a class or two off to some sunny end of the country to poke about in sand dunes or a working cotton mill or some other such thing while the teachers stopped them being dragged off by a crosscurrent or falling into a piece of Victorian machinery and then enjoyed the hotel bar in the evening. It was the same whether it was an impoverished state school or one of the most exclusive girl’s boarding schools in the country, all that changed was the scale. “They seem to be doing okay,” she said to Ms Johnston.

“Come on, Melanie,” she said with a sigh, this one a little less exaggerated, a little more genuine, “you’re the reason we’re here. Sort of.”

“Don’t remind me.” Melanie jumped off her rock and made her sullen way to the end of the shelf where they were supposed to be ‘working’. Everyone had clipboards and they were meant to be cataloguing any wildlife or interesting lichen – if such a thing could be said to exist – that they found or, if they were lucky, fossils. It was all a bit chaotic really and she knew her grandmother would have been quietly appalled, even if she did appreciate the gesture of bringing an entire class of girls to the Jurassic Coast to look for fossils. And appreciate it she did, because the whole business was in her honour. Charity Omotoso had never forgotten her roots and never stopped fighting for justice for the working classes, but she’d wanted her daughter to have a better life than she had, so she’d sent Clara to Ranford House for her education. And, because Charity Omotoso didn’t believe in doing anything unless she was totally immersed in it, she’d quickly gone from being a mere parent to a governor, and then when she became well known, one of the school’s most notable patrons and, more importantly, donors. The geography department was hastily refurbished, named after her and then reopened with an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony and, every year, lip service was paid with a field trip for Year 13 to this place, ostensibly to follow in the footsteps of the great woman and, well, find fossils. Now, as chance would have it, it was Melanie’s turn to come.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like geology – far from it; she had the knack for it her mother had lacked, being more interested in sport and politics and devoting herself wholesale to the activism her mother had only dabbled in out of necessity, but it was very hard living up to the legacy of someone like Charity Omotoso. She looked up at the cliff above where everyone was running around and giggling like, well, like schoolgirls and shielded her eyes with her hand against the glare coming off it. It was a great slab of sedimentary rock, stratified into distinct layers of subtly different colours, sloped at around thirty degrees where coastal erosion and the seismic shifts of the long aeons had pushed it against another, more robust layer of rock and sent it lurching crazily into the air. Crazily measured in geological timescales of courses. Melanie could almost count down the strata and pinpoint the epoch each layer had frozen in time. This whole coastline was Mesozoic and it was easy to pick out the main periods just by mentally dividing the rock up into three in the correct proportion. Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic. Then you looked closer and it got more complex. The youngest layer here was Albian. Then came Aptian, Barremian, Hauterivian, Valanginian, Berriasian, then an imaginary tipping point where the Cretaceous became the Jurassic with the appearance – or disappearance, if going back in time as she was in her imagination – of fossils like the one the pendant she wore was designed after, and its familiar roll call of Tithonian, Kimmeridgian, Oxfordian, Callovian, Bathonian, Bajocian, Aalenian, Toarcian, Pliensbachian, Sinemurian, Hettangian… Well, it was familiar to her anyway. She’d known them all since she was a child. A younger child. She was seventeen, but her school life was constructed in such a way as to keep her in a state of infancy until she could fulfil everyone’s expectations and transfer seamlessly from Ranford to Oxford or Cambridge (preferably the latter) and get on with the serious business of living up to her vast potential. She sympathised with the limestone ledge, bearing the weight of all these layers of ancient rock, pushing down, compressing mud and shale into solid stone for some distant human descendant to find. Her mother was the first black Head Girl in Ranford’s history. She was actually mixed-race, since her father was as pasty white as Ms Johnston, but that didn’t look so good in the newspapers. She’d rowed for the school, sprinted for Britain under-21s before a persistent ankle injury and a beckoning career in academia had led her into a life of being loud and opinionated in newspapers. It was all a lot to live up to.

“Melanie?”

She turned to see Malika, her best friend, looking at her strangely. “What?”

“You’ve been staring at that cliff for about five minutes.”

Malika was her friend because, when they’d started, they were the only two non-white girls in the school. Malika’s parents were second-generation Pakistani, and her father had made his money in investment banking or something equally ludicrous. The teachers had put them together at every opportunity because, Melanie had always assumed, it made things easier that way. The level of diversity in the school had risen gradually during Melanie’s seven years there, and now there were upwards of a dozen non-white students. She found it odd that neither her mother nor her grandmother ever found any contradiction between their outspoken beliefs regarding race and gender and sending her to an all-girls boarding school with a student body that was ninety-five percent ethnically homogenous.

“Just…thinking.”

Malika handed her a spare clipboard. “You’d better at least pretend to write something down.”

“Why? This shelf’s been combed over a thousand times in the last hundred years. Anything interestingly prehistoric was dug up a long time ago.”

“You never know.”

“No, I do know. That’s the whole problem.” Melanie took the clipboard though and took a pen out of her satchel. She wandered away from the group and listlessly prodded at the ground with the toe of her trainer and sent a lizard scuttling out of its shelter in the shadow of a fist-sized piece of rock. “Oh, that’s something.” She carefully wrote ‘lizard’ in the appropriate box on the pre-printed checklist. She should know what kind of lizard it was – this was the only place in the country where you could see all of Britain’s native reptiles – but she’d always been more interested in dead animals than living ones. She turned over the rock with her foot then frowned down at whatever it was that was now gleaming brightly at her from its surface. She looked over her shoulder – no one else was close by – and crouched down to examine the rock. It was an ordinary chunk of limestone but, as she picked it up, she saw that something was embedded in it. It looked metallic, but it was definitely in the rock itself, like a natural formation. She decided it was probably something left from the quarrying that had happened her in the Victorian age, trodden in by a workman’s boot a century ago. But no, as she turned the rock over again she saw the lines of strata across its surface she realised it had fallen from the cliff face above her. She had no tools for extracting fossils – further evidence the whole trip was really just for show – so, with no other ideas, she hurled the rock against the cliff.

It made a loud noise as it cracked and everyone fell quiet and turned around to look. She ignored them and walked over to the object now lying in the coarse grass against the side of the cliff. A few fragments of limestone were still clinging to it, but as she picked it up and turned it over in her hands, there was no mistaking what it was: a metal object, composed of several interconnected parts, quite clearly the work of a manufacturing process, embedded in rock a hundred million years old.

“Huh,” Melanie said.

*

Everyone thought it was best she went to see her grandmother herself. There was no question of who ought to pass judgement on this and, of course, author any subsequent paper that might be required. Melanie was reluctant for a number of reasons. For one thing, whenever she went to any of Cambridge’s colleges – which happened quite regularly for various reasons – everyone seemed to be sizing her up, thinking about what a useful addition she’d be. Famous by proxy, academically gifted, reassuringly black which was always good for the brochures and the website; they’d fight over her like vultures. No one really knew about the thing she’d found yet. Those who did were certain it was a hoax, or possibly just a foolish child making a mistake. She had the strange object in her satchel right now as she crossed a leafy quadrangle, overlooked on all four sides by the frowning medieval architecture of Cambridge University, and ducked through an arch that led to a tiled, musty-smelling corridor that led to the heavy wooden door of her grandmother’s office. It was like being in a Harry Potter book, and Melanie’s affinity with literature was slightly less impressive than her affinity with lizards. The big door was slightly ajar, but she knocked politely anyway. “Come in,” a familiar voice trilled from within.

Charity  Omotoso had spent her childhood in Birmingham but she’d been raised in a household of thick Nigerian accents and she’d never shaken hers in all the years she’d been surrounded by posh British academics. She lit up when Melanie ducked her head around the door and held out her arms. Unlike Melanie and her mother who were both tall and lean, Charity was a diminutive round woman who looked like she’d just bounce away happily if a car ever ran into her. She had a bright white smile that seemed to take up half her face and an unfortunate penchant for rather tacky earrings. Her silver hair was cropped quite short and she wore one of her usual shapeless, floaty shirts, patterned in a bizarre clash of colours. She stood up and had to go on tiptoes to kiss Melanie and pinch her cheeks. “My girl, my girl – look at the size of you!”

“You only saw me a few months ago, grandma,” Melanie said, rubbing her cheeks as she sat down.

“And you’ve grown,” Charity said.

“If you say so.”

“You will be taller than your mother one day.”

Melanie scratched at her tousled hair. She hated being compared to her mother even more than she hated being compared to her grandmother who now returned to her desk. The room was aggressively tidy, with every book on every shelf slotted neatly into place, ordered alphabetically, regardless of the subject. Geology textbooks squashed uncomfortably into gaps made between treatises on queer theory and collected essays by prominent black feminists. Charity was notorious for her orderly, precise thoughts, and her workspace was a reflection of that. It was always said she could say more with a single well-chosen phrase than her rivals could articulate in an entire essay. Others found the reality of meeting her jarring – no one quite expected such an incisive mind to be wrapped in the body of a toothy, boisterous Nigerian grandmother. To Melanie, of course, it was the most natural thing in the world. “Do you want to see the thing I found?” she asked.

“In a minute, my girl, in a minute. How have you been? How are your A-levels?”

“Fine.”

“Your mother sent me your last report. Your predicted grades are good.”

Melanie cringed inwardly. “Yeah. They’re only predictions.”

“Which college are you applying to?”

“I…well…I don’t know yet.”

“Take my advice, girl, go for one of the smaller ones.” She leant across the wide desk conspiratorially. “Magdalene’s very nice. Or Newnham.”

“Isn’t Newnham all girls? I think I’ve probably had enough of gender segregation to be honest…”

Charity laughed. “We will see.”

“And, you know, I might not even apply for Cambridge…”

“Oh do not start that again, girl,” her grandmother said, not even looking at her as she fussed with some papers on her desk. “Now, what is this thing you found that I am hearing so much about, eh?”

“Right, yeah.” She put her satchel on her lap and then took the object out. It was in a plastic bag, like evidence at a crimescene, and she suddenly felt reluctant to hand it over. It seemed so silly. She finally put it on the desk though. Charity bent down to peer at it. It was a strange thing: a dull metal…object. It defied description, really. It was a sort of cross-shape, with asymmetrical protrusions, clearly made up of several different parts joined together. It was badly corroded, but recognisable. Little bits of limestone were still stuck to it in places, particularly in the angles between its arms and in the joins between the parts. It was no bigger than a cricket ball, and about as heavy as would be expected. It had no strange properties at all, besides being somewhere it manifestly shouldn’t be.

“Hm,” Charity said.

“What do you think it is?”

Charity glanced up at her granddaughter. “Well…it does not look natural.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“And you found it in, what was it? A lump of limestone?”

“Yeah. From the shelf where we go on the field trip every year. You know it.”

“I know it well, girl. Yes indeed. Do you have the rock it came from?”

“No…I smashed it.”

“Smashed it?”

“I didn’t have a hammer to break it free so I sort of…threw it.” She mimed.

Charity smiled. “Just like your mother. She was always one for cutting the knot, her.”

“It was from the lateral formation at the end there. It had the same strata.”

“I see.” Her grandmother didn’t look convinced. She picked the object up and then opened the plastic back so she could tip it out into her hand. She handled it experimentally, feeling the texture, testing the weight. “I would say it was an iron alloy of some kind.” She held it up. “Heavily corroded. We will have to carbon date it, if we can.”

“From the strata, it must be at least seventy million years old…”

Charity looked across the desk. She still had the object in her hand, and her expression was warm, indulgent. “Hoaxes like this turn up from time to time. Go to America: their awful creationist museums are filled with them. Human footprints next to alleged dinosaur tracks, that sort of thing.”

“Sure, but this was embedded in the rock…”

Charity placed the object carefully back down on the desk. “I will have our laboratories test it. We will find out exactly how old it is, Melanie.”

“Okay. I appreciate that.” She hesitated. She was unwilling to leave her discovery here with her grandmother. For some reason, she didn’t feel sure she’d get the answers she was looking for. “What happens if it turns out to be genuine?” she asked.

“It would certainly be an…interesting phenomenon.”

“It’s obviously man-made. Or…something made, anyway. But it was buried alongside fossils from millions of years before anyone was using tools, let alone smelting metal.”

“Do not get your hopes up, my girl,” Charity said with another of her reassuring smiles, “as I said, it is probably a hoax.”

“Right, of course. I mean, I knew it’d be controversial. We’d have to revise a lot of assumptions.”

“Exactly, and remember Occam’s Razor.”

“Of course.” Melanie bobbed her head. “Now that you say it, it does sound sort of ridiculous. But I suppose I was excited to find something that might be important.”

“I understand. I was the same. When I dug up my first fossil, I was so desperate for it to be a new species. It turned out to be pretty common ammonite, of course. Nothing special at all. You can find them in every coastal rock formation in their thousands.”

Melanie realised she’d pulled out her necklace again and she grinned as she held it up. “Ammonite, sure. Nice coincidence.”

“Not at all,” Charity said, “palaeontology is just about mathematics. Fossils are so rare because they only form in certain specific conditions – conditions that happened to be comparatively common for ammonites. Shallow lagoons and so forth. Think of all the billions of creatures that lived over the hundreds of millions of years that complex organisms have been in existence, and how few survive today as fossils.”

“Right. I know that.”

“I should hope so. So, do not be too excited, my girl. You are young. You have a long time to make your reputation yet.”

“Uh huh.” Reputation. Like her grandmother, who had written bestselling books and had been on TV. Or her mother, with her bestsellers and who had won medals when she was her age. All Melanie had was her good marks. She was too gangly and awkward for sport, more like her grandmother in temperament but with a fraction of the intellect. She felt a fool for coming here at all. “Well, it was nice to see you.” She started to stand.

Charity looked disappointed. “Aren’t you staying for a while? I can take you out for dinner.”

“School only let me take today off. I have to catch the train back soon.”

“Never mind. I will see you in the holidays.” They both stood up, embraced again, and then Melanie was gone, leaving the college as quickly as she could, trying not to replay the conversation she’d just had over in her head and examine it for signs of her grandmother subtly mocking her for bringing something so silly to her attention. It was no good though.

*

Clara Omotoso-Clark lived in a thatched cottage in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge. It had a garden full of flowers, was less than three minutes walk away from the local pub and her neighbours were universally white and middle class. It was aggressively conventional, given her work, her background, everything about her really, but she liked it. It was nice. It was okay to have nice things. The sun was shining today and she was in the garden, watering the wisteria that climbed over the porch. She had her back turned to the drive as she heard a car pull in and then turned, watering can in hand, to see her mother waving from the driver’s seat. “I’ll put the kettle on,” she mouthed before going inside.

There was a gazebo in the garden, hidden away at the back of the cottage where it wasn’t overlooked. More climbers covered it so, at this time of year, they sat in a little grotto of leaves and blossom. It was lovely, but rather annoying to keep having to pick petals out of your tea. They sat at the little table, chatting about this and that, until her mother finally got to the point. “Melanie came to see me the other day.”

“Mm,” Clara nodded as she sipped her tea. There was some shortbread out too. One of her friends had brought it back from a recent trip to Edinburgh. “Yes, she said she was going to drop by. Something about finding something on a field trip?”

“Yes, she appears to be taking after her old grandmother.”

Clara smiled. The two women – Melanie and her mother – were so alike. Not physically, but in their way of looking at the world. They were both stubborn, both almost obsessively introspective and, of course, they seemed to have that same love of rocks and fossils that had meant so much in all their lives. Clara had never really gotten her head around it – her interests lay in people, in society and its injustices, not the petrified remains of unknowlable creatures from an age of the world that was long, long gone. But she respected all knowledge and everything they had could be put down to her mother’s work. “What was it?”

“Something strange. A kind of…artefact…she said she found in a rock.”

“Right…”

Charity sighed. “I am worried about her.”

“About Melanie? Why?” Clara put her cup down. She and her mother had always been close. Neither had managed to maintain marriages lasting longer than a few years, so they’d relied on one another. She’d helped raise Melanie after her father left. She couldn’t possibly object to her getting involved in her daughter’s life, but she did feel an instinctive flash of defensive anger at her mother’s imposition.

“I think she is…acting out.”

“Acting out? In what way?”

“For attention, you know.”

“I suppose…”

“It was different with you. You had your sport. You were not interested in following in my footsteps. You were your own woman.”

“And Melanie isn’t?”

“She is still a girl, but she feels the pressure.”

Clara poured herself anther cup of tea from the pot as she considered her words carefully. “I’ve never pressured her in her life. I’m happy whatever she does.”

“Of course. But if she wishes to become a palaeontologist, she knows she has big shoes to fill.”

“I’m sure. But what makes you think she’s ‘acting out’?”

“This thing she brought to me: it was a hoax. Anyone could see that. A manufactured object buried in Cretaceous rock.”

“Cretaceous…that’s the one after Jurassic, right?”

Her mother laughed loudly and Clara found herself joining in. The big woman had a very infectious sense of humour. More than a few rival academics had been lulled into a false sense of security by meeting her in person and assuming her cheerful exterior was a sign of a less than acute mind. “I am worried, Clara.”

“She just made a mistake, that’s all.”

“She is a clever girl. She came all the way to Cambridge to show me it.”

“Well…are you sure it’s a hoax?”

Charity gave her a flat look across the table. “Don’t be foolish, girl. If this was real, it would mean…well…I do not know what it would mean! It would give Dawkins a heart attack, I know this.”

“Don’t mention that man’s name,” Clara said darkly. “I know he’s a friend, but he drives me up the bloo…up the wall.” Her mother didn’t like swear words, even mild ones. “Why would he care anyway?”

“Have you heard of the Precambrian rabbits?”

“Excuse me?”

Another rolling laugh. “It is an old idea, a way of disproving evolutionary theory. Richard is fond of it. Haldane said it first, I think, that if we were to find fossils of rabbits in Precambrian strata, it would conclusively disprove evolution.”

“So this object is like that?”

“Yes. A made object millions of years before humans evolved? It would turn everything on its head.”

“Well,” Clara said, sipping at her tea thoughtfully. “Is that such a bad thing?”

“Hm?”

“I mean, if those rabbits turned up, it would just mean you were wrong. Isn’t that what science is about?”

“Yes, but…”

“Maybe this is the most seminal discovery of our age? Maybe it’ll change the way we think about prehistory.”

Charity lifted an eyebrow as she poured herself the last of the tea and then delicately used the pincers to load the cup with sugar cubes. “There is a vast body of evidence supporting the current model,” she said. “It would take more than one discovery to undo all that.”

“I’m not saying it’d undo it all,” Clara replied, feeling that the mood in the gazebo had changed slightly, “but you could at least check into it and see what the thing is. You want Melanie to be her own woman, don’t you? Like me…like you.”

“This is what I am saying! This is not about the thing she found. If she even found it.”

Clara frowned. “Are you saying she’s lying?”

“She told me she just broke it out of a rock she found.”

“And?”

“What are the chances she would just stumble across it? Her, with her connections to me? Occam’s Razor, Clara.”

“She’s never done anything like that before.”

“This is why I am telling you she is acting out. She is looking for a way to make her mark in the world. But she is young. She is going to ruin her career with this before it starts.”

Clara put her cup down gently. “Mum, are you worried for my daughter, or are you worried for your career?”

“Excuse me?”

“Maybe you should see what it is she found before you start accusing her of trying to deliberately deceive you. That would be wildly out of character for her. I know she’s been away from home, but she’s still my daughter, and I didn’t raise her to be a liar, especially to her own family.”

We raised her,” Charity pointed out, because she didn’t believe in diplomacy.

“Yes, but she’s still my daughter. So please just do as she asks. If not for her, then for me.”

Charity folded her hands in her lap and then nodded. “I am sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Clara sighed. “Do you want to stay for lunch?”

“It depends. Will you let me cook?”

Clara rolled her eyes. That was another way in which she didn’t take after her mother. “Yes, fine. Let’s see what I’ve got in the fridge and you can work your magic.”

“Science, girl. Cooking is science. Like everything else.”

Clara helped her mother to her feet and they walked back to the house, arm in arm.

*

Melanie turned to check on her grandmother as they laboured up another chalk down. For someone who’d lived their life with such precision, she was in terrible shape. She was dressed more sensibly than usual, in a t-shirt, jeans and sturdy walking boots. She picked her way up the hill with the help of a stout stick. As she reached the top, she let out a laugh. “Do not wait for me, girl. Go on ahead. The ledge has been there for millions of years – it will not disappear today.”

Melanie looked out across the sea. It was another bright day, with a flawless blue sky over the great expanse of darker sea. The white sails of yachts peppered the water as they made their way to or from the small town around the headland. The hillside was lush and green, and butterflies gambolled in pairs above the flowering gorse. It was all very beautiful, but she couldn’t keep her mind on it. Out of the blue, her grandmother had agreed to come with her to see the ledge where she’d found the object. It was still being studied back in Cambridge but, for now, she said she wanted to see the place with her own eyes. She’d obviously forgotten that the walk there was slightly taxing. “There are some cows further up,” Melanie said. “They sometimes crowd around the stile there.”

“Cows?” Her grandmother was known for being uncomfortable around anything larger than her cats.

“Don’t worry, I’ll scare them off for you, grandma.”

She smiled widely as she rested on her stick and looked out across the sea. She took in a deep breath and exhaled with obvious satisfaction. “Wonderful.”

“It’s okay…”

“Just the air, my girl. I forget. I love Cambridge, but it is so stuffy sometimes, almost. Inland, you know. And flat. Not enough geography. Bad fossil country.”

“You have the fens, don’t you?”

She snorted. “Fine for archaeologists, grubbing in the mud, looking for preserved eel fishers. No ammonites. No dinosaurs. Not a hill as far as you can see. Not like this.”

Melanie looked at her grandmother, breathing hard as sweat poured from her brow and thought that if she lived somewhere with too many hills, she’d give herself a heart attack. “It’s not much further now,” she told her.

They reached the ledge about twenty minutes later, with Melanie helping her grandmother down the steps cut into the rock that led down to it. There were a few other walkers around and they nodded politely to them before Melanie led them back to the stone slab where she’d been sitting before all this happened. “I don’t know if I can find the exact spot where I found it,” Melanie said.

“Never mind that. Lunch and a drink first.” They sat next to each other on the limestone block, chewing on the sandwiches her grandmother had brought in her rucksack. From this vantage, the walls of the ledge framed the sea as it stretched out to the horizon. A ferry was just making its way across their field of vision, headed for France or perhaps the Isle of Wight. Melanie liked to think about who was on the boats, what they might be doing or thinking about, what their lives were like. She was aware that her experience was an unusual one. She lived a life of privilege, with the best education money could buy, an easy route into a life of leisurely academia and family who loved her. It was a million miles from the childhood her grandmother had endured, and she wondered sometimes how they’d turned out so similar. She realised she was playing with the pendant again.

“Mm, very nice,” Her grandmother said as she popped the last of her lunch into her mouth. “And now, to work.” She hopped off the rock and started packing away their picnic things.

“Okay, well, we’ll see what we find I guess.”

They wandered around the ledge, to the cliff face at the end with its distinctive strata from the Mesozoic. Hundreds of millions of years, summarised in less than thirty feet of natural wall. It was a wonder; this whole part of the country was. Charity pointed. “Remarkable. You think the object was preserved here?”

“Originally, yes.” The cliff face was jagged and irregular. A chunk of stone could have fallen from anywhere. “I don’t know where it was exactly. But the rock I found it in was definitely stratified in the same way.”

“So you said.” Her grandmother was picking around on the ground, moving rocks with her foot and poking at tufts of grass, much as Melanie had. “Like this?” She stooped to pick up a rock and then held it up.

Melanie nodded. “More or less.”

Charity threw it against the base of the cliff and a small piece broke off. “Nothing in that one…”

Melanie felt a sudden stab of anger. “Did you come all this way to make fun of me, grandma?”

Charity sighed and shook her head. “I am sorry. I wanted to look around, that is all, but,” she gestured up at the cliff, “if there are more strange artefacts, they could be buried deep inside. We would need to demolish the whole cliff face. And I do not think the National Trust would agree to that, even in the name of scientific inquiry.”

Melanie folded her arms. “I suppose not.” She stared up at the cliff too. “I did find it, grandma. I’m not lying.”

“Who said you were lying, girl?”

“Nobody. But I know what you’re thinking.”

Her grandmother walked up to her and put a hand on her arm. “If you know what I am thinking, you are even more clever than we all think you are.”

Melanie patted her hand. “I’m not clever. Not like you and mum.”

“Nonsense. You are a very gifted child. You just need to find your path.”

She looked back at the cliff again. “I thought my path might be your path.”

“If you care about this, you should pursue it. But a career does not come from one stunning find. It comes from work, from long hours spent in study and, yes, a little luck. But mostly it is work.”

“I know that. I wasn’t trying to make an amazing discovery, you know.”

“I know.”

“But…I want you to be proud of me. Both of you. You’ve done so many amazing things. But me, I just live in your shadows. I haven’t done anything.”

Charity put her arm around her granddaughter’s shoulders. “Not yet, no. You have just survived. But that in itself is an astonishing thing. Look at these layers of rock. Each one represents millions of years of time, during which billions of organisms lived and died, all struggling to survive. In the hundred-million year story of this cliff face are dozens of catastrophic events that wiped out entire branches of the tree of life. But you are here today, you are the descendant of whatever creatures, perhaps preserved forever somewhere in the depths of that stone, who survived and prospered through all that anarchy. You think you only have your mother and me to live up to?” She swept her arm out, encompassing the entre cliff face. “These are your mothers too. An ancient line of mothers, stretching back to the earliest single-celled organisms, who all wanted what was best for their children. Their expectations lie upon you, just as they lie on your mother and me and all who have come before and who will come after. What is my vanity, my fear, against all that?”

“Your fear? I don’t…”

Her grandmother poked her in the chest. “You must be your own woman, whatever that means to you. Perhaps you will follow me, perhaps you will be more like your mother, or maybe someone else entirely. It does not matter what any of us think. What matters is you, what you think of yourself.”

“What does it mean though?”

“What?”

“The object I found.”

Charity frowned. “I have been thinking about this a lot, as you can imagine. And about the strata, and the ages of the Earth. Perhaps, it is not such a strange idea, that in the millions of years that have gone, something like us rose before.”

“Like us?”

“An intelligent people. Maybe descended from some race of dinosaurs – troodontids, perhaps, like the famous reconstruction.”

Melanie smiled. As a child, her mother had indulged her love of prehistory by taking her around an endless series of museums, of which there were many close by, here on the Jurassic Coast. One not far from here had a model of a proposed evolutionary path for a small therapod dinosaur that would result in him turning into a weird, alien-looking biped. It was a fun concept, but widely dismissed as implausible and embarrassingly parochial by most palaeontologists. Troodon, the theoretical antecedent of such a creature, also turned out to look more like a bug-eyed chicken than anything else. “So you think it’s possible?”

“Possible, yes. But how could we know?” She gestured again. “A million years, summarised in a few inches of rock. What have we lost? Human civilisation has existed for less than a hundredth of the time period encompassed by just one of these stratum, and only the tiniest fraction of all the animals and plants that have lived survive as fossils today. There are great swathes of our planet’s history forever hidden from us.”

“Unknowable mothers,” Melanie mused, “that is a lot of pressure, isn’t it?”

“Maybe. We will look at your object and try to find out the truth of it. But remember, whoever made it, they were gone in the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. Perhaps they left nothing behind except the thing you found. They are another failed branch, doomed to perish in some forgotten catastrophe. A sad story.”

“I suppose we’ll just have to do better than they did and leave something more behind.”

“What more can all those ancient mothers, frozen in their strata, ask of us?”

They left the cliff, walking back towards the path that led back up to the hilltop trail. As they passed the slab of limestone where they’d eaten lunch, Melanie thought of something. She told her grandmother to go on ahead and then, when she was alone, she slipped off the necklace she always wore, the brass ammonite. It had been a gift, and she liked it, but for some reason she decided she’d had enough of living in her grandmother’s shadow. She put it down on the makeshift seat and walked away, leaving it behind. She would find her own path now.

*

Hor’yen sniffed at the air as he tottered along the scree slope that led up to the curious rock formations in the middle of the great stone desert. His balance was a little off at this altitude, and all of his hind-limbs felt sluggish. He rotated his eye-stalks back and forth, picking out the other members of his expedition toiling behind him with the heavy equipment. He put his snout down and closed his ear flaps against the howling wind that blew dust across the slope and kept moving, putting his discomfort to one side. This was not a place his people enjoyed coming to, so far away from the shady swamps they preferred, but he was a scientist and that sometimes meant enduring things like this. The rocks were tall, wind-sculpted columns, striped with different bands of rock, recording long-gone geological ages of the world. Seeing the secrets of time laid bare like this was always a thrill, and he could feel his gills swelling with blood as he cantered through a natural arch, finally out of the wind now he was surrounding by the great stone monoliths.

Yal’a was the next to join him. By the colouring of his gills and the tension visible in his trembling dew sacs, it was clear he was on the verge of metamorphosis. If he elected to receive the hormone infusion from a carrier that would complete the change, Hor’yen was considering asking him to mate. He’d long thought they could produce strong offspring. Of course, no one ever knew quite how changing gender would affect a person, but Hor’yen wasn’t too concerned about that – it would be almost a year before he’d be able to ovulate anyway.

“Quite a place,” Yal’a observed.

“I know. Kor’ta wasn’t kidding.” He trotted close to one of the columns and probed its surface with his tongue, tasting the minerals. “Very ancient. Perhaps a hundred million years.”

“Amazing. I wonder what this place was like then?”

“There was an ocean here once. Of a kind, anyway. Saline seas.”

Yal’a shuddered, his dew sacs shaking attractively. “Hard to imagine anything surviving in such an environment.”

“But it did. Or we wouldn’t be here.” Hor’yen retracted his tongue and used his foreclaws to pick at the rock now, tapping it gently here and there, searching for the fossilised remnants of some ancient creature. The others were just lugging the equipment into place and got to work getting out the instruments. Hor’yen was just about to join them when he felt an unusual vibration.

“Is everything all right?” Yal’a asked, sensing his confusion from the colouration of his gills.

“There’s something odd in here.” He scratched away with his foreclaws, chipping away stone, until something emerged.

“What is that?”

“I don’t know…” Hor’yen dug it out and then held it up. His eye-stalks swivelled around as he looked at it from all angles and tried to make sense of it.

“That’s some kind of creature, I recognise it” Yal’a said. “But it doesn’t look right…”

Hor’yen’s tongue flicked out and he tasted the object experimentally. “An alloy of zinc and copper.”

“How is that possible?”

Hor’yen rippled his ear flaps helplessly. “I have no idea. This is a common enough fossil to find, particularly in places where saline oceans used to be found, but how could it be made from his material?”

“Something unusual in this environment?”

Hor’yen turned the object over. “No…no I think this was…manufactured…”

Yal’a let out a burst of iridescent gas from his dew sacs, and Hor’yen was momentarily distracted by the pheromones in the air. “That’s ridiculous. You said yourself these strata are a hundred million years old.”

Hor’yen stepped away from his companion to try and clear his head. “I know. But what else could it be?”

“Are you suggesting there was a civilisation of intelligent creatures living here millions of years ago?”

“It’s possible…”

“But wouldn’t there be more evidence? We’d know, surely.”

“True.” He looked up at the tall column though, stark against the mottled pink sky, and thought about all those layers of time, all those ages compressed into stone. “Maybe this is all they left behind,” he said, feeling strangely sad as he said it, “this one small thing.” He looked at it again. It was a remarkable object: a perfect representation of an ammonite. They must have lived alongside them, whoever they were. He stored it in a one of his chitin clefts for safe-keeping and galloped back to the rest of the team. They had work to do.

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This entry was posted in Contemporary, Feminism, Science Fiction, Short Story. Bookmark the permalink.

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