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Eclecticaton

   Jen Cavanaugh perched herself on her favorite rock in Takotah Alley, tucked her knees up under her chin, and gazed around the Cavern at the people coming and going. People watching was one of her favorite activities, and it never ceased to amaze her at how mundane life seemed down here, until you really looked and listened closely.

   That cluster of people looked like any other gathered at a street corner, but they were carrying spelunking equipment, and going over maps for someplace that didn’t exist on Earth. Over there a crowd had gathered around Echo McKenzie, listening to her tell either an elaborate fantasy story, or having a vision of a lost civilization, depending on who you believed. Another group of people near the Museum were arguing over the finer points of grammar for a language that until now, had only ever had one full-blooded human speaker.

   She could hear live music from unusual instruments wafting up from one of the restored ‘pubs’. Every so often a strange blue beam swept through the orange-ish ambient light ,and no one noticed. Under it all was the hum of giant fans, and the occasional ‘WoooOOMMmmm‘ sound of someone Linking in or out; teleporting in the blink of an eye.

   The last was the one that really got to her. She could wrap her brain around the ancient underground cavern, that had once been home to millions of people before the plow was invented. She could even (because she’d once dated a physics major) comprehend the idea that there were thousands of possible worlds out there.

   However she had yet to really adjust to the idea that those worlds were accessible, just by writing it down, and then using that book to teleport there. It sounded like a librarian’s ultimate dream- “Books take you places!”. And yet every day down here, people casually put their hands on pictures in these books, and poof, off they went. Like it was no big deal, as normal as grabbing a latte from Starbucks in Seattle.

   Resting her head on her knees she gave a little sigh. Seattle seemed a million miles from here, even though logistically it wasn’t much further than the flight from SeaTac to Albuquerque had been. She couldn’t have known that trying to find out what had happened to her mother would result in something so surreal as a hidden underground civilization. Sometimes she still thought she was dreaming.

   Her mother had disappeared late in 2003, when she was 12. For weeks she’d been acting strangely; distracted, preoccupied. Then suddenly she’d packed up some things, pulled cash out of the savings account, and drove off in the middle of the night. The car had been found abandoned in a campground at Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, with no signs of foul play, no activity on her credit cards, and a completely cold trail. The police eventually decided she’d just taken off, and the case was closed.

   Jenny’s dad had started drinking soon after, withdrawing into himself, and a very lost Jen was left mostly to her own devices, slogging her way through her teenage years and the first few years of college without support. When her dad passed away earlier this year, she’d figured she would sell off most of the stuff, sell the house, finish college, and move on.

   While up in the attic, she’d been sorting through boxes when she’d tripped, and smacked her shoulder into an old wardrobe that had been stored up there for years, jarring it enough to dislodge a ton of dust…and an envelope that had been sitting on top of it. An envelope with her name on it, in her mother’s handwriting.

   Her eyes watering, not just from the dust, she’d sat on a box and pulled out the letter inside.

“Dear JenJen,

I don’t know when you will see this letter- I’ve tried to put it where a curious young girl might find it eventually, but hidden enough that it won’t cause people to come after me. I don’t know how to explain why I’m doing this, picking up and leaving everything I have in the dead of night… but it is important that you know that I am not leaving because of you, or your father.

Something is calling to me. Something is drawing me to a new place, a new experience. I can’t describe it, really, just a deep feeling that I need to *be* somewhere.

Maybe it is a bit like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, this Knowing I have. Hopefully I won’t be creating any sculptures out of mashed potatoes, but like him, I know where I need to go- and yet I don’t know where I am going.

I love you, my JenJen, and I am sorry I won’t be there to see you grow up. Be well, be strong. Maybe someday we’ll meet again.

Love, Mama.”

   In the envelope with the letter had been a printed out map of the southern portion of New Mexico, with a few forest service roads marked off, and a seemingly random area of wilderness circled.

   Jen had agonized over what to do about the letter for weeks, dealing with all the feelings of abandonment and anger and grief it brought back up. In the end, though, deep in her gut she knew she would follow- so she’d taken a leave of absence from school, told everyone she was going on a retreat, and flown down to New Mexico.

   She latched on to a tour group headed down to Carlsbad Caverns, hung around with them for a while, just to look normal. From Carlsbad she’d hitched rides and hiked until she was as close as she could get on roads to the area on her mother’s map.

   Feeling more than a little crazy, but determined, she’d trekked across the New Mexico desert; following the crude map and the gps coordinates she’d managed to approximate from Google Earth. On the second day, coming up over a rise, she’d found the caldera, and the Airstream parked out in the middle of nowhere.

   No one had answered her knock, so she’d kept exploring, finding the strange skeleton, the rusty old silo-looking thing. Down in the cleft she’d poked and prodded at strange contraptions, nearly jumping out of her skin when a small tapestry of a handprint glowed when she touched it.

  Finally she’d figured out how to turn the power on, and when the hologram appeared and the woman spoke, saying “Have you heard of the Deep City, the ancient Uru?” she’d fallen to her knees and stared in wonder.

   That had been months ago, her leave of absence long since over, her ‘real life’ set aside.  She’d completed Yeesha’s Journey, discovered D’ni, and had her eyes opened to more than she’d ever imagined. She’d not found her mother, but she’d learned where she’d gone- part of a group of colonists who decided to start new lives in a new Age. Jen hadn’t worked up the courage yet to go visit, but she would, eventually. For now, she was content to know she was part of a vast and wonderful secret.

   Smiling to herself, she stretched her legs out, and considered going over to hear what Echo was saying (real or not, her stories were usually interesting), when she heard someone calling her name. Coming down the stairs from the Hall of Kings was David, one of the cavern ‘oldtimers’, and one of the people who did unofficial welcome wagon duty when new people arrived, most of them looking just as bewildered as she had.

   “Jen! The Maintainers just cleared a recreational Age- it’s got this great heated lake, and these awesome bouncy fungi growing on the shore that extend out like diving boards, wanna come?”

   “Sure, Wolfie! Lemme just hop back to my Relto and grab a swimsuit. I’ll meet you in the Maintainer’s Bevin!”

   Standing, she flipped open the Relto book on her hip, and squinted her eyes shut in anticipation of the unsettling pull from ‘here’ to ‘there’. Nope, she thought to herself as she arrived on her personal island, still not used to Linking.

   Jenny was a relative newcomer to D’ni, still overwhelmed and awed and thrilled by it all. She wondered if she’d ever feel as jaded and blasé as some of the people who had been down here for years acted. Grabbing her swimsuit out of her Relto closet she let a huge grin grow across her face. I hope not… there’s too much out there to discover.