To The Vanishing Point
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by Alan Dean Foster
Category: Science Fiction
Description: The Sonderberg family doesn't know it yet, but this isn't going to be any ordinary road trip. After they pick up an unassuming hitchhiker, a quiet drive down Interstate 40 becomes a trip into an alternate reality. It turns out the family has just given a ride to an alien who has the fate of the universe resting on her shoulders. Now the Sonderberg family must fight evil alongside their new alien friend in a desperate attempt to save the world they love.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1988
eBookwise Release Date: November 2001
97 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [500 KB]
Reading time: 315-441 min.
Desolation is magnified at seventy miles per hour. At that speed, colors that are normally separate and distinct tend to blend together like the test pattern on an old TV. Sharply defined objects melt into one another, precluding identification, forestalling recognition. Landscapes adopt the illusion of reality.
It's worse in the desert because there is so little to focus on. Those creatures that don't hide usually spend the daylight hours sleeping. For most of the year the plant life is dressed in a blistered gray hue that seems designed to confuse the eye. Nothing moves except the tormented air that rises in waves from the frying-pan pavement in front of you.
In summer, when the thermometer in the Mojave creeps past the 110 mark with threatening regularity, all activity ceases. Like the sidewinders and the kangaroo rats, the desert's human inhabitants have gone to ground by eight A.M., embracing the protection of dark buildings and overstressed air conditioners.
Once you get out past Barstow, driving east, civilization vanishes for hundreds of miles except for one tiny outpost called Baker. The map will insist you're still in the United States of America, but if not for the nondescript ribbon of concrete known as Interstate 40 you might as well be crossing the Gobi, or the Sahara, or the Namib. Brothers in emptiness. Parts of the Great Southwest Desert are as deadly empty as Arabia's Rub' al Khali.
If anything stands out it's the absence of black. Everything is painted light or white. In the Mojave black is the color of fools; sometimes dead ones. Now and again travelers convinced that living in the twentieth century has endowed them with immunity break down out in the desert. Travelers neglectful of water. Transient visitors who perish of dehydration despite aerial surveillance and thermos bottles and air-conditioning and CB radios.
Dull the desert can be, but it slays the thoughtless and carefree as efficiently as any gilded Toledo blade. Indifference makes it no less lethal.
* * *
The Sonderbergs had no thoughts of dying, though there were times since they'd left Los Angeles when Frank thought of doing some killing of his own, if only in the metaphorical sense. It was his own fault and he knew it. Normally they flew to Las Vegas. He'd decided they'd do it differently this time. Among the things that had inspired this changeling journey was the fact that Wendy was now old enough to appreciate the beauty of their unspoiled surroundings. That she had not the slightest intention of doing so was no fault of his. He ought to have known better.
Straightening slightly in the captain's chair enabled him to see her in the rearview mirror. Sixteen and pretty, she was convulsing on the couch that folded out to make a bed. Her head snapped from side to side, her torso twitched violently at the waist, and her feet massaged the floor. Eyes shut in private rapture, she was moving to the electrified rhythm of an unpronounceable group of heavy-metal leprechauns, delivered exclusively to her ears via the tiny wire that connected earphones and Walkman.
Though he would never have said so among peers, Frank didn't consider his daughter's musical taste all that bad. It wasn't so very different from what he'd been chastised for listening to when he was her age. But it was one thing to appreciate, another to be addicted. Wendy only removed the damn earphones to bathe and to sleep, and he wasn't sure about the latter. Fascinating sights were whizzing past outside the motor home and the only time his daughter opened her eyes was to change tapes.
Even when she paused briefly between concerts it was difficult to get her to pay attention to the country they were passing through. Worse, she was just old and smart enough to come up with a new word each week to describe her father. The current pejorative-of-the-month was "droll." As in his telling her plaintively, "Why don't you watch some of this scenery? Why the hell do you think I took off the extra time and shelled out the extra bucks to rent this palace on wheels so we could drive and look and learn instead of flying?" And her rolling her eyes and replying, "Oh, Daddy. How droll."
He would have welcomed the comment from Steven, who was ten. He would have welcomed anything from Steven, so long as it didn't sound like a whine. His son was two years too old to still be a whiner. Overweight, unattractive, he only displayed enthusiasm when they drew near the next Burger King or McDonald's or Carl's Junior. Anything but a Wendy's, because that was the name of his despised, contemptuous older sister.
Frank settled back into the thickly padded seat. Two junkies he was raising. One addicted to indecipherable music, the other to junk food. He glanced to his right, and his expression softened. God knew Alicia tried her best. The children were just going through a phase, she would assure him. That was her favorite line and she clung to it like a talisman, reciting it like a prayer. Just going through a phase. No matter what the problem was, it was just a phase. Heavy metal, it's just a phase. Overeating, a phase. Cats and dogs phasing out now. Scarred bass guitarists and Big Macs phasing in.
He was being too hard on himself, he knew. His kids could be worse. Steven might grow out of his gluttony, and at least Wendy wasn't into drugs. Not so far as he knew.
Alicia still had that glow. She'd never been truly beautiful, but there was a serenity about her he'd always found attractive. The maid helped maintain that aura, as did the money. She'd been much more hyper when they'd met. Success bred in contentment, bred out her early nervousness and uncertainty. They enjoyed each other's company, and that was more important than superficial physical attractiveness. Besides, he was no Cary Grant himself.
She'd been ambivalent about this project all along, but she'd agreed to renting the motor home and driving to Vegas instead of flying as usual because he'd been so enthusiastic. He knew she'd done it for that reason and not because she thought it was the right way to go. The warm feeling prompted him to reach over with his right hand and pat her thigh. She looked back and smiled that familiar half-certain smile of hers.
"Love you, too."
He returned his attention to the empty highway ahead. The big engine sang to itself beneath the hood. The outside thermometer read ninety-eight and rising. Other vehicles, even eighteen-wheelers, were scarce this morning.
"It's not working out."
She glanced back, then settled into her seat again. "You mean the kids? You can't really blame them. They'd rather be lying by the pool. At their age there's no vacation in getting there."
"I know. It's my fault."
The kids enjoyed Vegas. Wendy was old enough to enjoy watching the young men at the pool and in the casino. Steven liked the pool, too, and freaked over the selection of video games, not to mention over being able to order room service. With the children occupied, Alicia spent the day soaking up the sun while Frank relaxed from the business. At night he and Alicia would take in a show or spend some time at the craps table while the kids relaxed in front of the TV, watching movies. They were pretty good about that, he had to admit.
Now Steven was whining constantly and Wendy had withdrawn to her private metal nirvana, and it was all his fault. Just this once he'd determined to do something different. He hoped for enlightenment, but the result so far had been unrelenting discontent and alienation. Maybe he should have let Alicia stock the motor home's larder with Steven's requested cookies and chips and candy. At least he wouldn't have had to put up with the boy's continual whining ever since they'd left San Bernardino.
Wendy didn't whine. She just ignored him, as she ignored the barren landscape flashing past the windows while slipping fresh tapes in and out of her player as efficiently as any late-night DJ. Frank no longer tried to point out ocotillo or cholla, jumping cactus or paloverde. He could have counted on more response from a stone.
"You never thought much of this trip either, did you?"
Alicia Sonderberg tried to frame a tactful reply. Truth to tell, she'd been startled when her husband had first broached the idea. It wasn't like him. One of the traits she most loved him for was his predictability. She'd found him a welcome change from her own unsettled adolescence. Frank made her feel safe and secure right from the start, even during the early days when they'd lived in a cramped studio apartment in a run-down section of Santa Monica while he'd tried to start his business. He was dependable, reliable.
Then out of nowhere came his declared intention to deviate from their vacation plans, from the pattern they'd followed for years. Instead of flying to Vegas, let's rent a motor home and drive, he'd announced brightly.
She smiled to herself. It wasn't as if he'd proposed chartering a plane to fly to the North Pole so they could watch polar bears and walrus. Nevertheless, she'd quietly tried to change his mind, arguing that Steven wasn't old enough to appreciate whatever they might encounter and that Wendy wouldn't care. That she'd been proven correct so far was small comfort. She derived no pleasure from her husband's disappointment.
It was no way to begin a vacation. He'd always expected the truth from her and she'd always given it to him, but it was going to be hard to reply honestly. Oh sure, one or two things they'd seen had been of interest, but they had to consider the children. Frankly, Wendy and Steven were bored to tears. Wendy wanted boys to admire her new swimsuits and Steven wanted his snacks. Their idea of a vacation was not slowing down to watch a real, live rattlesnake cross the road. It wasn't Alicia's, either. The closest she wanted to get to creepy-crawlies was watching them on PBS. She was even more of a city person than Frank. Thank God they could afford a gardener.
Seeing how genuinely distraught her husband was, she tried to work around the question. "Frank, you know how I always like to look my best for you."
He frowned. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"Cosmetics don't hold up too well in this kind of climate. That's why I don't go outside when we're in Vegas, except to go to the pool."
"You're being evasive, hon."
She smiled gently. "Maybe a little. Frank, you've got to admit this hasn't been very exciting so far."
"Did I promise excitement? Did I ever say it was going to be exciting? We're going to spend a week in Vegas, for chrissake. Isn't that excitement enough? Can't we take a few days away from that to have an educational experience?"
She looked toward the middle of the motor home. "I'm afraid the kids have had all the education they can take."
He grunted and leaned over the wheel. "The kids! My kids. The zombie and the human garbage disposal. The Jacksons they ain't."
"Frank, their summer vacation just started. They've been nine months in school. The last thing in the world they're interested in is an educational experience. Don't you remember what it was like when you were their age?"
"It should be fun for them, too." He was losing ground and knew it. "I mean, seeing that big diamondback cross the road. You know how many kids never get that close to a real, live rattler?"
"Every kid in L.A. gets to the zoo."
"That's not the same thing as seeing it in its natural habitat," he protested.
"I'm not sure I-40 qualifies as a natural habitat, Frank."
He nodded to himself. "You're gonna fight me on this one, aren't you?" He swerved slightly to avoid a piece of broken crate littering the pavement, pulling into the fast lane to go around it. He barely bothered to glance at the sideview mirror. There'd been so little traffic since they'd left the outskirts of San Bernardino he felt they had the highway to themselves. In a sense they did.
The Sonderberg children attended private school. The public schools didn't let out for another two weeks. That was another reason why they always vacationed this time of year. The usual tourist destinations were still devoid of high school and college students and families traveling with kids. Only Wendy was upset, bemoaning the lack of boys her own age to chat with.
Frank worried about his daughter's preoccupation with members of the opposite sex, only to have Alicia reassure him that it was nothing but another phase. Wendy was no worse than any other pretty girl that age, and better than some. It was all part of growing up. Like her son's admittedly regrettable overeating problem.
Alicia had to admit that her son's junk food binge was lasting longer than was healthy. His continued inactivity wouldn't be so bad if he was, say, a computer genius or something. But he was quite average, well-meaning enough but in no way exceptional. In that regard he was much like his parents. Frank Sonderberg had risen above his station through sheer determination and hard work. Maybe when Steven was older he would begin to show some skill, or at least a little of his father's drive. To date, however, the boy had proved himself relentlessly ordinary.
Nobody appreciated what he was trying to do for them with this trip, Frank mused. Not Wendy and Steven, not even Alicia. They knew only city life, the big house, the private schools, vacations, and shopping sprees. It wasn't right. He enjoyed all those things himself, having worked hard to gain them. But there ought to be some balance in a person's life. Frank was big on balance.
If you lived in the city then you should spend some time in the country, and if you were a country person you needed to experience the sophistication of the city. Balance. Television couldn't compensate. Watching the creatures of the desert on Nova or Disney or Nature wasn't the same as encountering them in the wild.
Their brief sight of a family of javelinas in a gully just the other side of Barstow had been instructive. Alicia couldn't get over how "cute" the two babies were. Wendy wondered why all the fuss over a bunch of hairy pigs, and Steven spent the whole evening at the RV park whining about bacon and pork chops. While there was something to be said for reducing an experience to its essential elements, his family had a way of doing it that transformed the extraordinary into the mundane.
Maybe he was expecting too much of them. Especially the kids. He doubted they were all that different from their friends. Everything had been given to them. Alicia knew better, but his decision to drive instead of fly to Vegas was clearly baffling to her as well.
Indifference and muted hostility. Those were his rewards for trying to act the responsible father. For trying to show his family something of the world beyond Los Angeles. Side trips to San Diego, San Francisco, and New York didn't count. He'd sired an urban family, pure and simple. To Wendy and Steven a wildlife expedition consisted of going to the beach and fighting to avoid anything organic while playing in the surf.
He looked up at the map secured by magnetic clips to the bare metal dash above the radio/cassette player. Fifty miles to go to Baker, the minuscule outpost of civilization that lay between Barstow and Vegas. This was one of the emptiest spots in California. Nothing to the south, Death Valley to the north.
In point of fact, he reluctantly confessed to himself, it was pretty boring. Not like the Pacific Northwest or the bayous of the Deep South. Not that he was intimate with those regions, either. He was an armchair explorer, letting someone else's camera be his eyes. Until this trip.
He was ready to admit defeat, conquered by apathy. Already he'd discarded his original plan to take several days between San Bernardino and Vegas to explore side roads and beckoning arroyos. Not even the unblemished night sky had been sufficient to enthrall his offspring.
"We saw it all at the planetarium, Daddy." So much for his daughter's sense of wonder. As for Steven, he could only decry the absence of a laser show.
"Right," he muttered to no one in particular. "I give in."
Alicia glanced over curiously. "You give in to what, dear?"
Instead of replying he turned his head to the right, shouted toward the back of the motor home. "Hey! You kids!"
Steven looked up from his comic book. "What's up, Dad?"
"We're going to -- Get that thing off your sister's head, will you?"
The boy shook his head violently. "Uh-uh. If I touch 'em she'll hit me. Shes always hitting me."
Alicia finally managed to catch her daughter's eye. Wendy rolled her eyes and nudged the earphones back from her ears. Mötley Crüe drifted weakly through the motor home.
"What is it now?"
"You win." Frank kept one hand on the steering wheel.
Wendy glanced at her little brother, who shrugged. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I give up. I try to introduce you to a new experience, try to show you something unique, and I'm just wasting my time. I know when I'm beaten."
"Frank, watch the road," Alicia cautioned him.
"I am watching the road. Not that there's anything to watch." He waved his hand at the cream-gray concrete. "There's nobody else out here. We're the only ones stupid enough to drive this stretch of road in the middle of the day, right?"
That wasn't entirely true. Eager gamblers crammed into old Chevys and Toyotas occasionally rocketed past the motor home, exceeding the speed limit by a good twenty to thirty miles an hour in their haste to reach the neon lights and gaming tables just over the state line. They vanished rapidly over the shimmering, heat-struck horizon.
"We're not making any more stops," he explained tiredly. "We're gonna drive straight through. When we get there we'll check in to a big hotel, just like everybody wants. I'll turn the motor home in to the rental agency and we'll fly home when vacation's up."
"Wow, that's great, Dad!"
"Thanks, Pops." Wendy slid her headphones back into position, closed her eyes. "That's really rad of you." Her upper body began to sway rhythmically.
"You're both welcome." His sarcasm was lost on them. He saw that Steven had abandoned his comic book in favor of a Transformer toy.
When he'd been a boy he'd had cap pistols and a football and a train. Immutable diversions. Now they had toys that turned into other toys. What galled him was that he couldn't figure out how they worked. He'd once spent a futile couple of hours fiddling with one of his son's Transformers and had achieved only a fine sense of feeling daft. Steven's pudgy fingers effortlessly turned the chunk of brightly colored plastic and metal into a succession of sleek gadgets.
"You look worried," said Alicia. "You're upset."
"Sure I'm upset."
"You've got that look on your face."
"What look? The look that says I'm forty and death is just around the corner?" He tried hard not to smile at her and failed. She reached over and caressed his right arm, squeezing gently. Both his expression and his voice softened.
"You've known me so long. I don't know what I'd do without you, babe."
"Same back at you, Sonderberg. Want to drive for another hour, or you want me to take over?"
"Naw. I'll stay with it awhile longer. After all, I'd planned on driving for another couple of days. You're not real disappointed, are you?"
"Would I lie to you, Frank? No, I'm not disappointed. A real bed and a real shower would be so nice."
"So much for the natural experience," he grunted.
"If you want to expose the children to nature, maybe at the end of summer we can all go up to Yosemite together. I think they'd handle that okay."
"Sure they would. There's fast food machines everywhere, cable TV, and plenty of boys for your daughter to flirt with. We can stay in some fancy hotel and eat out every night."
Her smile faded slightly. "You know, Frank, keeping house even on wheels and cooking three meals a day on that little gas stove isn't exactly my idea of a vacation."
"All right. Point conceded. Look, I've already given in, haven't I? I said we'd drive straight on through and take the plane back when it's time to come home. Don't make me feel any worse about it than I already do."
"I know you better than that, Frank. You're protesting too much. Don't tell me you've been having such a grand time yourself. Be honest, now."
As usual with Alicia he was unable to muster a convincing lie. "Yes and no. I'm disappointed the kids didn't get to see more of this country. I'm sorry you and I didn't get to see more. But maybe they aren't old enough to appreciate it like I thought, and maybe it's the wrong time of year." Even though it was early summer it was already too hot to stand outside for long. "My intentions were good, sweetheart."
"I know that, Frank. I think the children realize it, too."
He was nodding to himself. "My intentions were good. It was just the actuality that stank, right?" He held up a hand to forestall her protest. "Maybe we'll try it again another year." He stared out the bug-splattered windshield at the endless ribbon of highway, the sallow-colored hills, and frugal vegetation. "Yosemite probably would be more interesting. It's just that we were going to Vegas anyway."
"Education shouldn't be the main purpose of a vacation, dear. It's a lot like work. It's hard enough to get you to relax. You're thinking about work right now, aren't you?"
"I'm always thinking about work. Can't help it, hon. I'm trying to run fifty-six stores and get ready to open those four new ones in Oregon. Two in Portland, one in Medford, the other in Eugene. It's tough to leave stuff like that behind you. You don't know what it's like trying to run the company now that it's gotten so big."
"No, but I know what it's like to try living with the man who does. That's exasperating enough. If not for your own sake then for mine, try to put it out of your mind long enough to relax a little. It'll do you good."
"We go through this every time we go away. God knows I've heard the same thing from every doctor I've ever seen. You know what they say? They say it's a miracle my blood pressure isn't higher than it is. You're right about it, of course."
"You're going to have to try to learn to relax in spite of yourself. You sure you don't want me to take over?"
"No, I'll drive for another hour, anyway. Alicia, when you've built up something like the business from nothing, it becomes a lot like a child itself. It's tough to put it out of your mind."
"Well, you have two other children to consider. Sometimes it's important for us to think about what they want instead of what we want for them."
He made a face. "You make it sound like I've been forcing them to sit through a ten-hour lecture on national monetary policy." He reached out to tap the map with a finger. "That ghost town yesterday was fun, wasn't it?" He looked back. "Didn't everybody have fun at the ghost town?"
"They had great corn dogs." Steven tried to sound hopeful, aware that his father was less than pleased with him. He wasn't sure his reply had the desired effect, though.
"What about you?"
"Say what?" Wendy slipped off the headphones.
"Calico." Frank spoke patiently, trying to watch the road at the same time. "The ghost town. Didn't you have a good time there?"
"Actually, Pops, I thought it was kind of a drag. The walk through the gold mine, that's just so old. And the bar where all they could sell was soda. I mean, come on, Pops. Get real."
"You'd have preferred a beer, I suppose." She just smiled knowingly. "You've got a few years to go before you're legal, kiddo."
"Maybe I'm not legal, but I'm cute." She was teasing him now, he knew. Demonstrating the social superiority of the American adolescent. "I can get beer in Vegas, you know."
"Where? Who gave you beer?"
"Frank." Alicia spoke softly, trying to calm her husband. "Can't you see she's just trying to get to you?"
He turned grumpily back to his driving. "She's succeeding. If I find out someone in a casino is selling sixteen-year-olds beer, especially my sixteen-year-old..."
"Take it easy, Frank."
"I know, I know. Blood pressure."
"I mean," said Wendy, her attention and voice beginning to fade under the influence of the tape she was listening to, "it was a place for golden oldies, you know?"
Frank forced himself to keep both hands on the wheel. "Just remember it's the golden oldies up here who're paying for this trip and for those invisible swimsuits you think you're going to wear poolside. I swear," he muttered, "the less material they put in those things the more they charge. I'm waiting for pasties and a fig leaf at fifty bucks a pop."
"Frank..." Alicia began warningly.
"What 'Frank'? You think I shouldn't talk like that in front of the kids? You think they're innocents? Your daughter doesn't listen to that metal crap all the time. She can hear when she wants to. And I'm not going to have her parading around some casino pool in those new suits. They don't hide anything. She can wear 'em in the room if she wants, but that's it."
"Frank, this is Las Vegas we're going to, remember? The hotels are full of showgirls and would-be actresses. You really think anyone's going to pay any attention to a sixteen-year-old?" She looked back. "No offense, darling."
"Oh, gee, Mom, none taken," said her daughter sardonically. "When we get there I'll damn well dress as I please."
"What? What was that?" Frank managed a furious glance backward. "What did you say, young lady?"
"Frank, please keep your eyes on the road." Alicia hastily examined the map, looked out her window with forced excitement in her voice. "Oh, look! See those mountains over there?"
Not really wanting to look but willing to change the subject, Wendy turned boredly without removing her headset to peer out the long window above the convertible couch. Steven scrambled onto his knees to do likewise.
"What about them?" She turned up the volume on the tape player slightly, willing to meet her mother halfway but in no mood for a geology lecture.
Alicia double-checked the map. "They're called the Devil's Playground."
Wendy slumped, burdened by the sheer weight of her parents' presence. "Whoopie."
"But just look at them." Alicia was trying real hard, Frank knew, and he loved her for it. "Isn't it fascinating to wonder how a place like that could get such a name?"
"Yeah, kinda," said Steven slowly, displaying interest in something other than food and his toys for the first time in the last hundred miles.
His sister eyed him in surprise. "Give me a break, little brother." She found herself staring through the glass in spite of herself. "There's nothing out there, Mom. Just like there's been nothing out there since we left L.A."
"But the name. Can't you just see some poor prospector or hunter struggling through this awful country by himself, without freeways and hamburger stands and gas stations to fall back on? That's who probably named this place."
"Maybe it was a thermometer salesman," Frank quipped, feeling a little better now that the decision had been made. "Or some old guy with a burro and a beard who spent his whole life looking to make the big strike."
"Yes," said Alicia. "This whole part of the country is covered with names like that, and the bones of the people who bestowed them."
"Honestly, you two." Wendy popped a stick of gum in her mouth, extracting it from its package as neatly as a woodpecker would siphon a grub from beneath the bark of an elm. "Probably named by some guy who inherited a couple thousand acres out here. Maybe he thought it would bring tourists. 'Come see the Devil's Playground. Pan for gold. Touch a cactus. Souvenirs, cold cherry cider, hot dogs, kids eat free.' That's where your weird names come from."
"You're not much of a romantic." Frank refused to let her upset him. "I thought all girls your age were supposed to be romantics."
"Oh, we are, Pops, we are. But not about nowhere dumps like this. Now, if Bon Jovi or Roger Hornsby were giving a concert out here, I'd get real romantic." She gestured at the blasted landscape visible through the window. "Get real. The name's the only thing distinctive about this place. It looks just like the last hundred miles we've driven and just like the next hundred miles will look." She blew a bubble, let it burst, sucked the pink latex back through her teeth.
Alicia settled back in her seat, the expression on her face saying "I tried." Frank had nothing to add. As a father he was coming to appreciate that the worldview of sixteen-year-old girls was somewhat limited.
Copyright © 1988 by Alan Dean Foster