An excerpt from

Dear Mr Darwin

Stephanie Bretherton

The snow has stopped and the wind is weakening. The horizon offers many choices, but it is the rise straight ahead that is drawing her. More draining on her dwindling reserves, but with the promise of greater protection and resources if it yields what she hopes it will. She is further south than any of her band imagined could be gained with safety but she can see that this territory once offered great bounty. It is a chance she must take, though she knows that such opportunity might also mean competition.

She is right to have chosen this way. The loose stones gradually grow into boulders and into craggy walls and then open up to weaving pathways between them. There is growth preserved within this sheltering ground. She will gather up some fallen branches to tie together and carry away, in case their journey takes them through barren land again. She senses that other kinds of life may be hiding here, though she sees no tracks yet, the snowfall is too fresh. Even so, this would be a good place to set multiple traps and wait. She takes note of all the best positions for a snare, then selects a winding walkway and pushes forward.

And then she knows that they are not alone.

Her pace quickens with her pulse. Every sense springs to readiness, blade-sharp and alert. Skin prickles over muscles that are both tight and yet ready for action. She listens beyond the breeze, smells the dusty heartbeat of the earth. This is the feeling of the chase. Except this time, they are the prey.

She has heard it, felt it, knows it is circling them… following. How big? Too big to fight. Too powerful, probably, to outrun. Is there anywhere safe to climb? But then they will have to outwait it and they can’t. It is a battle of patience she may not win. She knows she must outsmart it.

*

Impasse. Eloise struggled to restrain her frustration, it was never useful to the method. The teeth had been a dead end, no useable preserved dentine. The skeletal yield had not been much better, and worst of all, it seemed that the first batch of bone powder had been contaminated beyond the expected presence of some microbial DNA.

Despite their careful cleaning of the samples with enzymes, tests had revealed the presence of Y chromosome fragments. As X was undoubtedly female these should not have been there, unless at some stage during the retrieval and extraction process present-day male DNA had come into contact with the remains. She was sure it could not have happened at the lab, but there was no point in seeking or apportioning blame, these were the risks inherent with handling ancient bones. They would have to start again.

Back at her desk, she logged on and entered her password (a revolving combination of those same four, protean letters) and then opened an ominously brief message from Eugene Vanterpool calling her in to a meeting. Eloise felt a spasm in her solar plexus. A summons from the Director rarely boded well. The long walk to the west wing of the building did not help her mood. When she reached the restored oak door of the ‘bank vault’ as the Director’s office was known, it was an inch open. She knocked once and walked in as confidently as she could.

 “Ah, Dr. Kluft! Thank you for your time, please, sit down. The Java’s still hot. A sweet tooth as I recall? How many sugars again?”

“Three. Thank you, Eugene.”

“This is good stuff, you know! I brought it back from the islands myself.”

Eloise realised how much she’d enjoyed the three weeks without scrutiny while her boss had taken a holiday in his native Caribbean.

“How was your trip?” she asked, not really wanting to know.

 “Wonderful, wonderful, thank you. The Mater Familias is still going strong. Ninety-two, can you believe it? Still chasing the birds from her mango trees. It makes me hopeful for my own hard-earned retirement!”

His familiar baritone had a light and unfamiliar lilt. A little forced perhaps? Oh dear, thought Eloise, if he is this jovial, it must be bad news.

“So. How are things, Eloise?”

He knows how things are, she thought resentfully, realising she would have to tell him again. Out loud.

“Well, no change from the last report, but we’re still very positive...”

“No, no, with you, My Dear, with you. What’s happening in your life?” he asked with what appeared to be genuine interest. Eloise tried very hard not to squirm.

“Well, nothing but this really…. Eugene, what’s this all about?”

“Well, my dear Dr. Kluft. I have just come back from the High Commission. The Kenyans are keen to hear of progress, as you can imagine. They need to know that they have made the right decision for their girl.”

Confusingly to Eloise, Eugene was still smiling.

“And you, of course, assured them that they have?” Eloise asked, smiling too, through the rictus of anxiety.

“Well, of course, of course. However, it seems that we now have another player on the field.”

The knot in her stomach tightened.

“Another player? Who, Germany?”

“No, My Dear. The Americans. A laboratory in the US claims to have developed a new extraction technique. They are lobbying for a handover... “

No! She was not sure whether she had shouted this aloud or not, but Eugene carried on regardless.

“...Furthermore, the Foundation is becoming, well, shall we say, a little impatient. Eloise, you know how the funding has been squeezed, first since the financial crisis and now with this EU disaster.”

Fucking bankers. Bloody bumbling politicians and lying bastard, tax dodging media barons, Eloise cursed silently, thinking briefly yet fondly of the one who had taught her to profane without remorse. But if there was a hell, she decided, then its depths were populated by whoever pulled the purse strings against enlightenment – although the same inferno scorched the feet of those forced to make Faustian pacts in order simply to do the work. Eloise was tempted to swear again, outwardly, but then managed a more measured voice than she’d anticipated.

“No. No, we cannot give her up lightly, Eugene. We cannot even consider it!”

X belonged to Eloise now and she had grown close, was beginning to know her. A cast of the skull was in Manchester for facial reconstruction, along with photographs and measurements of the skeletal remains. Soon, soon, she would meet her quarry face to face. Female X was destined to add her own chapter to the unfolding revelation that would change things forever, and Eloise would publish it.

 “I will fight it every step of the way, Eugene. And you know how stubborn I can be! Look, we’ll raise the money from somewhere else if we have to?”

“Now, now, calm down, Dr. Kluft, calm down. I don’t want to see this happen any more than you. There have been no decisions as yet, only discussions. I just thought that you should be, well, let’s say, aware. And if the worse comes to the worst, well, you can go back to your clinical epigenetic work that much sooner.”

Eugene was somehow still smiling. Eloise, meanwhile, was arming for a fight.

“Yes, but you know that Female X could potentially inform that project too! Who knows what we might learn… and then share! The Americans will try to take over, try to patent anything they can develop, you know that. We can’t give her up, Eugene!”

“Sarah.”

This inexplicable statement from Eugene threw a sudden bafflement into the fray.

“I beg your pardon?” asked Eloise, her eyebrows unsure of whether to rise or furrow.

“Something else you should know,” he said with impossible satisfaction, “they have decided on a name. Sarah. After Barrack Obama’s Kenyan grandmother. Catchy, isn’t it? And very ‘apt’ shall we say? A little more media-friendly, too.”

Dear God, she thought. Now the bones were part of some political name-checking game, as well as a financial tussle. She had rather liked ‘Female X,’ preferred its wide open vistas, its lack of imposition or presumption. No matter, she thought. The moniker was a minor issue, she had bigger battles to fight.

The alternative reality of losing the bones, losing the project (and all the meaning it had bought into an otherwise sterile phase of her life) haunted every step of her walk home, and it had been necessary to power away the cortisol that was coursing through her system rather than ride the tube. Finally, somewhere between the pierced, dyed and tattooed throngs of Camden and the gradual gentrification of Kentish Town, Eloise had formed an idea. Darius!

Darius must surely be on her side and he could pull some serious strings. Eloise had no qualms about calling in every marker that she could.

*

Even before sighting the creature she knows its name, its nature. She recognises the rare essence that entered her soul, so many moons ago, during her first guided vision quest under the tutelage of her grandmother. At the time she had expected (wished for?) a wolf, or an owl, but it was the bear that had come to her… as it comes to her now. And suddenly, she knows what she must do.

She finds a good place, a cleft in the rock face of a small escarpment through a narrow canyon, about three men’s height above the ground. No wind. Laying the infant on the ground, exposed, she climbs up, and leaves it to cry. The stench of the beast reaches her even before it approaches, heavy, hungry.

She waits. Her spear is sharp enough, but is it strong enough for what it must do? Is she? She has left a few large stones around the bait (oh, please, please, no) in case the weapon and her falling weight cannot finish it, or her aim cannot find that crucial spot between two ribs, right next to the spine. But the spear is part of her once more, she guides her intention through to its very tip and feels where it must go. She waits.