Image Missing

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Lincoln Child

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Epigraph

Prologue

Two Weeks Later

7:30 AM

8:10 AM

8:50 AM

9:00 AM

9:10 AM

9:45 AM

9:55 AM

11:00 AM

11:15 AM

11:15 AM

11:45 AM

12:45 PM

1:05 PM

1:09 PM

1:15 PM

1:15 PM

1:17 PM

1:34 PM

1:42 PM

1:45 PM

1:47 PM

1:50 PM

1:52 PM

1:55 PM

2:10 PM

2:22 PM

2:22 PM

2:26 PM

2:26 PM

2:40 PM

2:40 PM

2:55 PM

3:12 PM

3:15 PM

3:15 PM

3:25 PM

3:30 PM

3:33 PM

3:40 PM

3:40 PM

3:45 PM

3:45 PM

3:50 PM

3:50 PM

3:50 PM

3:55 PM

4:00 PM

4:00 PM

4:00 PM

4:00 PM

4:03 PM

4:03 PM

4:08 PM

4:10 PM

4:12 PM

4:15 PM

4:15 PM

4:16 PM

4:16 PM

4:20 PM

4:20 PM

4:24 PM

4:24 PM

4:25 PM

4:25 PM

4:28 PM

4:32 PM

Epilogue

Copyright

About the Book

The world’s grandest theme park is a place known for its cutting-edge robots, awe-inspiring holographics, and white-knuckle thrills.

When serious mishaps start to disrupt the once flawless technology and a popular rollercoaster nearly kills a rider, the brilliant computer engineer who designed much of the technology is summoned to put things right. But on the day that Andrew Warne arrives, Utopia finds itself in the grip of something far more sinister and every man, woman and child trapped in the pleasure dome are at risk …

About the Author

Lincoln Child is also the co-author, with Douglas Preston, of The Cabinet of Curiosities, The Ice Limit, Relic and other bestsellers. He lives with his wife and daughter in Morristown, New Jersey.

Also by Lincoln Child

(with Douglas Preston)

Relic

Mount Dragon

Reliquary

Riptide

Thunderhead

The Ice Limit

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Utopia

A Novel

Lincoln Child

To my daughter, Veronica

u•to•pi•a (yoo•tō′pē -•ah) n. 1. A state or situation of perfection. 2. An ideal place or location, frequently imaginary.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Many people helped make this book a reality. My cousin, Greg Tear, was involved almost from the beginning, and proved himself both a fount of ideas and a tireless sounding board. Eric Simonoff, my agent at Janklow & Nesbit, did a heroic job of reading (and, bless him, re-reading) the manuscript and offering vital criticism. Betsy Mitchell proved to be a supportive and shrewd reader, and the novel is much the better for her input and that of her associates. And Matthew Snyder of Creative Artists Agency proved himself once again to be the best gunslinger on the West Coast.

I’d like to thank my editor at Doubleday, Jason Kaufman, for his enthusiasm and his invaluable assistance with the manuscript. To Special Agent Douglas Margini, for his advice on weapons and law enforcement procedures – and for the ‘ridealong’ – my thanks. And I’d like to give special thanks to my co-conspirator and writing partner, Douglas Preston, for his extensive input and for encouraging me to write this book in the first place. Throughout seven joint novels he has proven himself to be both a loyal partner and a close friend, and I look forward to our next seven collaborations. Doug, take a bow.

There are others whose contributions, large and small, must be acknowledged: Bob Wincott, Lee Suckno, Pat Allocco, Tony Trischka, Stan Wood, Bob Przybylski. No doubt there are others I’ve neglected to name, and to you I offer my cringing apologies in advance.

I want to thank the many members of the Preston-Child online bulletin board; your enthusiasm and dedication won’t be forgotten.

And last, but far from least, I want to thank the three women in my life – my mother, Nancy; my wife, Luchie; and my daughter, Veronica – for making this book possible.

It goes without saying that Utopia – and its cast, crew, and guests – are entirely imaginary. References to persons, places, and things outside the Park are either fictitious or used fictitiously.

PROLOGUE

It was the ultimate coup, and Corey knew it. Not only had he scored a Jack the Ripper T-shirt – the exact thing his mother had sworn for three months that she would never, ever buy him – but now the whole family was about to ride Notting Hill Chase. Everyone knew it was the most amazing ride, not just in Gaslight but in the entire Park. Two of his school buddies had been here on vacation last month, and neither one had been allowed on it. But Corey was determined. He’d noticed his parents were having a blast, despite themselves. Just as he’d known they would: after all, this was only the newest, best amusement park in the whole world. One by one, the little family rules had fallen away, until at last he’d tried for the Big Kahuna. An intensive half hour of whining wore them down. And now, as the line ahead grew shorter and shorter, Corey knew he was home free.

He could see the ride was really fancy, even for here. They were in some kind of winding alley with old houses on either side. There was a faint chilly breeze, with a musty smell to it. Wonder how they faked that. Little flames burned atop iron lamplights. It was foggy, of course, like the rest of Gaslight. Now he could see the loading platform ahead. Two women clad in funny-looking hats and long dark dresses were helping a group of people into a low, topless carriage with big wooden wheels. The women closed the carriage and stepped back. It jolted forward, wheels turning in rhythm, and disappeared beneath a dark overhang as another empty carriage came up to take its place. Another group boarded, rolled forward out of sight; yet another empty carriage slid into position. Now it was his turn.

There was a scary moment when he thought he might be too short for the ride, but by drawing himself up with a herculean effort Corey raised the top of his head above the minimums bar. He quivered with excitement as one of the ladies ushered them up into the carriage. Immediately, he darted like a ferret for the forward seat, planting himself firmly upon it.

His father frowned. ‘Sure you want to sit there, skipper?’

Corey nodded vigorously. After all, this was what made the ride so scary. The carriage’s seats faced each other. That meant the two who sat in the front would ride backward.

‘I don’t like this,’ his sister whined, taking a seat beside him.

He gave her a brutal, silencing jab. Why couldn’t he have had a cool big brother, like Roger Prescott had? Instead, he was stuck with a wimpy sister who read horse books and thought video games were gross.

‘Keep your arms and legs inside the barouche at all times, please,’ the lady said in that weird accent Corey supposed was English. He didn’t know what a broosh was, but it didn’t matter. He was riding Notting Hill, and nobody could stop him now.

The lady closed the door, and the lap bar came automatically into position across Corey’s chest. The carriage jerked, and his sister gave a small squeak of fear. Corey snorted.

As they began to move forward, he craned his neck over the side, looking first up, then down. His mother quickly reined him back, but not before he’d noticed that the carriage was on some sort of belt, cleverly concealed and almost invisible in the dimness, and that the wheels were just turning for show. It didn’t matter. The carriage trundled ahead into darkness and the sudden amplified clatter of horse’s hooves. Corey caught his breath, unable to suppress a grin of excitement as he felt the carriage begin to rise steeply. Now, out of the darkness, he could see the vague shape of a city spreading out around him: a thousand peaked roofs, winking and smoking in the night air; and, farther away, a cool-looking tower. He did not notice the tiny infrared camera concealed inside its uppermost window.

Forty feet below, Allan Presley watched the monitor disinterestedly, as the kid in the Jack the Ripper T-shirt rose up Alpha lift. That shirt had been the most popular seller in Gaslight the last four months running, even at twenty-nine bucks a pop. It was amazing the way wallets flew open when people came here. Speaking of flying open, the kid’s jaw was dropping almost like a caricature: his head swiveling this way and that, leaving faint greenish heat trails in the infrared monitor as his car rose up above the sprawling rooflines of Victorian London. Of course, the kid had no idea he was ascending through a cylindrical screen, displaying a digital image beamed from two dozen projectors onto the fiber-optic lights of the cityscape. It was an illusion, of course. At Utopia, illusion was everything.

Presley’s eyes flitted briefly toward the girl sitting next to the kid. Too young to be of interest. Besides, the parents were with them. He sighed.

At most of the first-line thrill rides in the park, cameras were strategically positioned at the final hair-raising descents, capturing the looks on the riders’ faces. By paying five dollars at the exit, you could buy an image of yourself, usually grinning maniacally or frozen in fear. But it had become an underground tradition among the more daring young women to bare their breasts to the camera. Of course, the resulting pictures never reached public view. But male members of the backstage crew were greatly entertained. They’d even come up with a term for the practice: meloning. Presley shook his head. The crew at the water flume in Boardwalk got a good twelve, fifteen eyefuls a day. Here in Gaslight, it was much less common, especially this early.

With another sigh, he put aside his copy of Virgil’s Georgics and quickly scanned the rest of the three dozen monitors arrayed along the control room wall. All quiet, as usual. By Utopia standards the Chase was a relatively low-tech coaster, but it still more or less ran itself. The most excitement Presley usually got was when some fool tried to clamber out of a car midride. Even that had its established routine: the intrusion mats along the ridepath would activate; he’d alert the tower operator to stop the ride; then he’d send Dispatch to escort the guest away.

Presley’s eye wandered back to camera 4. The kid was at the top of the ratchet hill now. In a second, what little light there was would go out, the car would head into the first drop, and the real fun would begin. He found himself watching the excitement painted on that little face – clear even through the ghostly infrared – and trying to remember the first time he’d ridden Notting Hill himself. Despite the countless thousands of rides he’d worked as foreman, there was still only one word to describe it: magic.

The console speaker crackled. ‘Hey, Elvis.’

He didn’t answer. In America, being a white male with the last name of Presley carried unavoidable baggage. It was like having the last name of Hitler. Or Christ, maybe, assuming anybody had the balls to . . .

‘Elvis, copy?’

He recognized the nasal voice of Cale, over on the Steeplechase attraction. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ Presley said into his mike.

‘Any action over there?’

‘Nope. Dead.’

‘Same here. Well, almost. Had five pukers this morning, boom, one after the other. You should have seen it: unloading looked like a war zone. They had to close down for ten minutes to let Sanitation clean up.’

‘Fascinating.’ There was a deep, visceral shudder in the control room as one of the carriages hurtled down the final vertical drop that ended the ride. Automatically, Presley glanced up at the bank of cameras as the carriage moved toward the unloading area. Dazed, happy faces.

‘Let me know if you get anything good,’ Cale continued. ‘One of the commissary chefs told me they expect a bunch of sororities to come through tonight. Maybe I’ll stop by after shift.’

A warning light glowed red on the circuit panel before him. ‘Gotta go,’ Presley said. He snapped a button to speak with the tower operator. ‘I’m showing a safety dog failure at Turn Omega.’

‘Yeah, I see it,’ came the response. ‘Where the bots at?’

‘Lubrication at the Ghost Pond.’

‘Okay. I’ll call Shop.’

‘Copy.’ Presley sat back and scanned the monitors again. Warning lights were always going off. The rides were so overengineered with redundant safeties there was never cause for concern. Most were false alarms, anyway. The biggest danger was to the mechanics, who had to keep their fool heads and fingers out of the way of the cars when the rides were live.

Corey was clinging desperately to the lap bar, shrieking at the top of his lungs. He could feel gravity pressing against his chest, tugging irresistibly at his armpits, trying to lift him bodily from the car. At the top of the lift – so the storyboard went – their imaginary horses had been spooked by some ghostly apparition, and now the carriage was a runaway. He was surrounded by a pandemonium of noise: the clatter of the runaway carriage, the shrill neighing of panicked horses. And, above it all, the piercing, constant, gratifying shriek of his sister. He was having the time of his life.

Now they were racing through a series of amazingly realistic set pieces as they sped down the cobbled hill: a deserted, spectral lake; a maze of dark narrow alleys; a dockscape of rotting piers and shade-haunted clipper ships. The carriage jerked upward once, then twice, with gut-wrenching force. Corey clung tighter, for rumors of what awaited at the end of the ride had reached his ears: the carriage would ultimately careen over the side of the hill and hurtle straight down through black space.

‘I’m at dog 91. Checks out fine. Hey, Dave, do you know why, during a physical, the doc tells you to turn your head when he’s checking your johnson?’

‘Nope.’

Presley listened automatically to the mechanics’ chatter over the radio, barely paying attention. He swept the monitors, then dropped his gaze once again to Georgics. He’d been a classics major at UCB, always meant to go on to graduate school, but now just couldn’t summon the energy to leave Utopia and go back to school. As it was, he was probably the only person in the entire state of Nevada who spoke Latin. Once he’d tried to use this as a pickup line. It hadn’t worked.

‘Well, somebody explained it to me. The doctors don’t want saliva spewed in their face when you cough.’

‘No shit. That’s it? And here I always thought there was some anatomical reason, because . . . hey, Christ, dog 94 is burned out.’

Presley sat up, listening intently now.

‘What do you mean, burned out? It’s not a damn lightbulb.’

‘Just what I said. It’s smoking, stinks like hell. Must have overloaded. Never seen anything like it, even in the simulator. Looks like dog 95’s the same way . . .’

Presley leaped to his feet, chair spinning and rattling away behind him. He glanced toward the ride’s breakout diagram. Safety dogs 94 and 95 controlled the final vertical descent from Turn Omega.

This wasn’t good. Sure, the safeties would stop any traffic coming up. But he’d never heard of the dogs failing before, especially two in series, and he didn’t like it. He grabbed for the radio and the tower operator. ‘Frank, drop the plates. Shut it down.’

‘Already on it. But oh, my God, a car’s just passing now . . .’

Presley’s trained eyes darted to the bank of monitors. What he saw turned the blood in his veins to ice.

A carriage was hurtling down the final descent of Notting Hill. But it was not the even, controlled descent he had witnessed so many times. The carriage was canted away from the vertical track, its detached undercarriage swinging horribly. The occupants were pressed against the lap bars, clutching at each other, the whites of their eyes and the pinks of their tongues pale green in the monitor wash. There was no audio feed but Presley could see they were screaming.

The carriage canted still farther as it picked up speed. Then there was a jarring wrench and one of the occupants tumbled forward. His small hands scrabbled frantically, but the G-forces were too strong; the hand slipped past the safety bar, past the adult hands that reached desperately for it, and as the rider cartwheeled toward the camera, hurtling down with appalling speed, Presley had just enough time to make out the Jack the Ripper stitching before the impact killed the visual feed.

TWO WEEKS LATER

7:30 AM

FROM ITS JUMPING-OFF place at Charleston Boulevard, above the Las Vegas Strip, Rancho Drive makes a casual bend to the left and heads straight for Reno. It arrows northwest with absolute precision, ignoring all natural or artificial temptations to curve, as if in a hurry to leave neon and green felt far behind. Country clubs, shopping centers, and finally even the sad-looking ersatz adobe suburbs fall away. The Mojave Desert, tucked beneath the asphalt and concrete sprawl, reasserts itself. Spidery tendrils of sand trace their way across what the signs start calling Route 9 5. Joshua trees, hirsute and sprawling, dot the greasewood desert. Cacti stand like standard-bearers to the emptiness. After the frantic, crowded glitter, the gradual transition to vast empty spaces seems otherworldly. Except for the highway, the hand of man appears not to have touched this place.

Andrew Warne tilted his rearview mirror sharply upward and to the right, sighing with relief as the dazzling brightness receded. ‘How could I possibly have come to Vegas without bringing dark glasses?’ he said. ‘The sun shines 366 days a year in this place.’

The girl in the seat beside him smirked, adjusted her headphones. ‘That’s my dad. The absent-minded professor.’

‘Ex-professor, you mean.’

The road ahead was a burning line of white. The surrounding desert seemed bleached by the glare, yucca and creosote bush reduced to pale specters. Idly, Warne laid the palm of his hand against the window, then snatched it away. Seven-thirty AM, and already it had to be a hundred degrees outside. Even the rental car seemed to have adapted to the desert conditions: its climate control was stuck on the maximum AC setting.

As they approached Indian Springs, a low plateau rose to the east: Nellis Air Force Base. Gas stations began to appear every few miles, out of place in the empty void, sparkling clean, so new they looked to Warne as if they’d just been unwrapped. He glanced at a printed sheet that lay clipped to a folder between their seats. Not far now. And there it was: a freeway exit sign, bright green, newly minted. Utopia. One mile.

The girl also noticed the sign. ‘Are we there yet?’ she asked.

‘Very funny, princess.’

‘You know I hate it when you call me princess. I’m fourteen. That’s a name for a little kid.’

‘You act like a little kid sometimes.’

The girl frowned at this, turned up the volume on her music player. The resultant thumping was clear even over the air conditioner.

‘Careful, Georgia, you’ll give yourself tinnitus. What’s that you’re listening to, anyway?’

‘Swing.’

‘Well, that’s an improvement, at least. Last month it was gothic rock. The month before, it was – what was it?’

‘Euro-house.’

‘Euro-house. Can’t you settle on a style you like?’

Georgia shrugged. ‘I’m too intelligent for that.’

The difference was evident the moment they reached the bottom of the exit ramp. The road surface changed: instead of the cracked gray concrete of US Highway 95, lined like a reptile’s skin by countless repairs, it became a pale, smooth red, with more lanes than the freeway they’d just left. Sculpted lights sloped gracefully over the macadam. For the first time in twenty miles, Warne could see cars on the road ahead. He followed them as the highway began a smooth, even climb from the alkali flats. The signs here were white, with blue letters, and they all said the same thing: Guest Parking Ahead.

The parking lot, almost empty at this early hour, was mind-numbingly large. Following the arrows, Warne drove past a cluster of oversize recreational vehicles, dwarfed like insects by the expanse of blacktop. He’d snorted in disbelief when someone told him seventy thousand people visited the park each day; now, he was inclined to believe it. In the seat beside him, Georgia was looking around. Despite the practiced air of teenage ennui, she could not completely conceal her eagerness.

Another mile and a half brought them to the front of the lot and a long, low structure with the word Embarkation displayed along its roof in Art Deco letters. There were more cars here, people in shorts and sandals milling about. As he eased up to a tollgate, a parking attendant approached, indicating Warne to lower his window. The man wore a white polo shirt, the stylized logo of a small bird sewn on the left breast.

Warne reached into the folder, pulled out a laminated card. The attendant studied it, then plucked a digital stylus from his belt and examined its screen. After a moment, he handed the passcard back to Warne, motioning him through.

He parked beside a line of yellow trams, then dropped the passcard into his shirt pocket. ‘Here we are,’ he said. And then, looking out at the Embarkation Building, he paused momentarily, thinking.

‘You’re not going to try to get back together with Sarah again, are you?’

Startled by the question, Warne looked over. Georgia returned his gaze.

It was remarkable, really, the way she could read his mind sometimes. Maybe it was the amount of time they spent together, the degree they had come to rely on each other in recent years. Whatever the case, it could be very annoying. Especially when she chose only to speculate on his more sensitive thoughts.

The girl lowered her headphones. ‘Dad, don’t do it. She’s a real ball-buster.’

‘Watch your mouth, Georgia.’ He pulled a small white envelope from the folder. ‘You know, I don’t think there’s a woman on earth that would pass muster with you. You want me to stay a widower the rest of my life?’

He said this with a little more force than he’d intended. Georgia’s only response was to roll her eyes and replace the headphones on her head.

Andrew Warne loved Georgia intensely, almost painfully. Yet he’d never anticipated how difficult it would be to navigate the world, to raise a daughter, all by himself. Sometimes he wondered if he was making a royal mess of the job. It was at times like this that he missed his wife, Charlotte, most acutely.

He looked at Georgia another moment. Then he sighed, took hold of the door again, and yanked it open.

Instantly, furnacelike air boiled in. Warne slammed the door, waited for Georgia to hoist her backpack onto her shoulders and follow, then hopped over the shimmering tarmac to the Transportation Center.

Inside, it was pleasantly chilly. The Center was spotless and functional, framed in blond wood and brushed metal. Glass-fronted ticket windows stretched in an endless line to the left and right, deserted save for one directly ahead. Another display of the laminated card and they were past and headed down a brightly lit corridor. In an hour or so, he knew, this space would be jammed with harried parents, squirming kids, chattering tour guides. Now, there was nothing but rows of metal crowd rails and the click of his heels on the pristine floor.

A monorail was already waiting at the loading zone, low-slung and silver, its doors open. Oversize windows curved up both sides, meeting at the transport mechanism that clung to the overhead rail. Warne had never ridden on a suspended monorail before, and he did not relish the prospect. He could see a scattering of riders inside, mostly men and women in business suits. An operator directed them to the frontmost car. It was, as usual, spotless, its sole occupants a heavyset man in the front and a short, bespectacled man in the rear. Though the monorail had not yet left the Center, the heavyset man was looking around busily, his pasty, heavy-browed face a mask of excitement and anticipation.

Warne let Georgia take the window seat, then slid in beside her. Almost before they were seated, a low chime sounded and the doors came noiselessly together. There was a brief lurch, followed by silky acceleration. Welcome to the Utopia monorail, a female voice said from everywhere and nowhere. It was not the usual voice Warne had heard on public address systems: instead, it was rich, sophisticated, with a trace of a British accent. Travel time to the Nexus will be approximately eight minutes and thirty seconds. For your safety and comfort, we ask that you remain in your seats for the duration of the ride.

Suddenly, brilliant light bathed the compartment as the Center fell away behind them. Ahead and above, dual monorail tracks curved gently through a narrow sandstone canyon. Warne glanced down quickly, then almost snatched his feet away in surprise. What he had supposed to be a solid floor was actually a series of glass panels. Below him was now an unobstructed drop of perhaps a hundred feet to the rocky canyon floor. He took a deep breath and looked away.

‘Cool,’ Georgia said.

The canyon we are traveling through is geologically very old, the voice went smoothly on. Along its rim, you can see the juniper, sagebrush, and scrub piñon characteristic of the high desert . . .

‘Can you believe this?’ said a voice in his ear. Turning, Warne saw that – in flagrant defiance of the ‘remain seated’ edict – the heavyset man had walked back through the car to take a seat across from them. He wore a painfully orange floral shirt, had bright black eyes, and a smile that seemed too big for his face. Like Warne, he had a small envelope in his hand. ‘Pepper, Norman Pepper. My God, what a view. And in the first car, too. We’ll have a great view of the Nexus. Never been here before, but I’ve heard it’s outstanding. Outstanding. Imagine, buying a whole mountain, or mesa, or whatever you call it, for a theme park! Is this your daughter? Pretty girl you’ve got there.’

‘Say thank you, Georgia,’ Warne said.

‘Thank you, Georgia,’ came a most unconvincing reply.

. . . On the canyon wall to the right of the train, you can see a series of pictographs. These red-and-white anthropomorphs are the work of the prehistoric inhabitants of this region, the period now known as Basket Maker II, which flourished almost three thousand years ago . . .

‘So what’s your specialty?’ Pepper asked.

‘I’m sorry?’

The man shrugged his squat shoulders. ‘Well, you obviously don’t work at the Park, ’cause y’all are riding the monorail in. And the Park hasn’t opened yet, so you’re not a visitor. That means you’ve got to be a consultant or a specialist. Right? So is everybody on the train, I’ll bet.’

‘I’m an – I’m in robotics,’ Warne replied.

‘Robotics?’

‘Artificial intelligence.’

‘Artificial intelligence,’ came the echo. ‘Uh-huh.’ Pepper took a breath, opened his mouth for another question.

‘What about you?’ Warne interjected quickly.

At this the man smiled even more broadly. He put his finger to one side of his nose and winked conspiratorially. ‘Dendrobium giganteum.’

Warne looked at him blankly.

Cattleya dowiana. You know.’ The man seemed shocked.

Warne spread his hands. ‘Sorry.’

‘Orchids.’ The man sniffed. ‘Thought you might have guessed when you heard my name. I’m the exotic botanist who did all the work at the New York Exposition last year – maybe you read about it? Anyway, they want some special hybrids for the athenaeum they’re building in Atlantis. And they’re having some problems with the night-bloomers in Gaslight. Don’t like the humidity or something.’ He spread his hands expansively, knocking both his and Warne’s envelopes to the ground. ‘All expenses paid, first-class ticket, nice fat consultancy fee – and it’ll look great on my résumé, too.’

Warne nodded as the man retrieved the fallen envelopes, passed his back. That he could believe. Utopia was supposedly so fanatical about the accuracy of its themed Worlds that scholars were occasionally seen wandering around, slack-jawed, taking notes. Georgia was gazing around at the canyon, paying no attention to Pepper.

. . . The twenty square miles owned here by Utopia is rich in natural resources and beauty, including two springs and a catchment basin . . .

Pepper glanced over his shoulder. ‘How about you?’

Warne had almost forgotten the slightly built man with glasses sitting behind them. The man blinked back, as if considering the question. ‘Smythe,’ he said in an accent that sounded faintly Australian. ‘Pyro.’

‘Pyrotechnics? You mean, like fireworks?’

The man smoothed his fingers over the tiny toothbrush mustache that grew in the shadow of his nose. ‘I design the special shows, like the recent six-month celebration. Troubleshooting, too. Some of the late-show indoor chrysanthemums are launching too high, breaking panes of glass in the dome.’

‘Can’t have that,’ Pepper said.

‘And in the Griffin Tower show, guests are complaining the maroons at the end are too loud.’ The man fell silent abruptly, shrugged, turned his head to look out the window.

Warne shifted his own gaze to the passing russet-colored cliffs, then back to the interior of the monorail. Something had been bothering him, and he suddenly realized what it was. He turned to Pepper. ‘Where are all the characters, the action figures, Oberon, Morpheus, Pendragon? I haven’t seen so much as a decal.’

‘Oh, they’re around, all right – in the shops and some of the kiddie attractions. But you won’t see any guys in rodent suits walking around. Nightingale was very particular about that, they say. Very concerned about the purity of the experience. That’s why all this –’ he waved a pudgy hand – ‘the Transportation Center, the monorail, even the Nexus – is so understated. No commercialization. Makes the actual Worlds that much more real. Or so I’ve heard.’ He turned to the quiet man behind them. ‘Right?’

Smythe nodded.

Pepper leaned a bit closer to Warne. ‘Never thought too much of Nightingale’s stuff myself. Those Feverstone Chronicles animated movies, based on his old magic act? Too dark. But my kids are crazy for it. And they watch his cartoons every week, like clockwork. They almost killed me when they heard I was coming here and they couldn’t tag along.’ Pepper chuckled, rubbing his hands together. Warne had read books where people rubbed their hands in anticipation, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever actually seen anybody do it.

‘My daughter would have killed me if I didn’t bring her,’ he replied. ‘Ouch!’ he yelped as Georgia kicked him beneath the seat.

There was a brief silence. Warne rubbed his calf.

‘So, you think it’s true they’ve got a nuclear reactor buried underneath the Park?’ Pepper asked.

‘Huh?’

‘That’s the rumor. I mean, just imagine the electrical overhead. The place is its own municipality, for heaven’s sake. Think of the juice it must take to keep the whole place going, air-conditioning, rides, computers. I asked one of the hosts back in the Center, and she said they used hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric! In the middle of the desert! I . . . hey, look – there it is!’

Warne glanced forward, then froze despite himself. He heard Georgia draw in a quick breath.

The monorail had just banked around a particularly steep bend, and ahead, the canyon widened dramatically. Stretching from wall to wall, from the top of the canyon to its base, was a vast copper-colored facade, glimmering brilliantly in the morning sun. It was as if the canyon suddenly ended in this massive wall of burnished metal. The cul-de-sac was an illusion, of course – a large, circular rock valley beyond enclosed the Park itself – but it was spectacular, breathtaking, beautiful in its own spartan way. The only break in the facade was two tiny squares dead center, near the top, where the monorail tracks entered. Along the upper edge was the single, huge word, Utopia, in letters of some micalike substance that winked and glittered, appearing and disappearing with the angle of the sun. Atop and beyond, a huge geodesic dome arched over everything, a complex lattice of crystal polygons and metal webbing. At its apex, a flag rippled: the stylized logo of a violet bird on a field of white.

‘Wow,’ Georgia said under her breath.

. . . We hope you enjoy your visit. And remember, if you have any questions or concerns, we invite you to visit one of our Guest Services lounges within the Nexus or the Worlds themselves. Please remain seated until the monorail comes to a complete stop.

The car fell silent as they glided forward into shadow.

8:10 AM

THE NEXUS WAS a broad, gracious space, framed in the same brushed metal and wood of the Transportation Center. Restaurants, shops, souvenir boutiques, and Guest Services lounges lined the walls to the left and right, stretching ahead for what seemed a limitless distance. Warne followed the others down the monorail off-loading ramp, Georgia in tow, gazing about curiously. The ceiling was open to the glass dome far above, framing a huge cloudless sky that arced over the Nexus in a brilliant azure band. Before him, information kiosks and low, graceful fountains gleamed in the slanted bars of sunlight. Signs, large but discreet, directed visitors toward the Park’s four Worlds: Camelot, Gaslight, Boardwalk, Callisto. The air was cool, a little moist, and full of muted sound – voices, the patter of water, some softer noise he couldn’t identify.

A group of youngish men and women were waiting at the base of the ramp. They wore identical white blazers and carried identical folders. They looked, in fact, as if they could have all been related. Warne wondered, only half in jest, if there were height, weight, and age restrictions for Utopia employees. He dismissed the thought as he saw one of the women walking briskly toward him.

‘Dr Warne? I’m Amanda Freeman,’ the woman said, shaking his hand.

‘So I see,’ Warne replied, nodding toward the nameplate affixed to her blazer lapel. He wondered how she had recognized him.

‘I’ll be processing you into Utopia, giving you a brief orientation.’ Her voice was pleasant, but almost as brisk as her walk. She nodded toward the small envelope he was carrying. A miniature bar code had been impact-printed along one edge. ‘May I have that?’

He handed it to her, and she tore it open, upending it into her palm. Out tumbled another stylized bird, this one in green. She affixed it to his jacket. ‘Please wear this pin while you’re with us.’

‘Why?’

‘It identifies you as an external specialist. You have your passcard? Good. That and the pin will give you the backstage access you’ll need.’

‘Beats paying admission.’

‘Keep the passcard handy. You may be asked to show it from time to time. In fact, most crew working the Underground keep them clipped to their pockets. Is this your daughter?’

‘Georgia, yes.’

‘I didn’t realize she was coming along. We’ll have to get her a pin, as well.’

‘Thank you.’

‘No problem. She can wait in Child-Care Services while you’re processed. You can pick her up afterwards.’

Child-Care Services?’ Georgia asked, her voice steely with indignation.

Freeman smiled briefly again. ‘Actually, it’s the young adult division of Child-Care Services. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.’

Georgia flashed Warne a dark look. ‘Dad, this better be good,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t do Legos.’

Warne looked past her, toward the off-loading ramp. The pyrotechnics specialist, Smythe, was walking purposefully down into the Nexus. Norman Pepper was talking animatedly with one of the white-blazered men. The two began moving away, Pepper rubbing his hands and smiling widely.

They dropped Georgia at the nearby services desk, then proceeded down the central corridor of the Nexus.

‘You’ve got a beautiful daughter,’ Freeman said as they walked.

‘Thanks. But please don’t tell her that. She’s got a chip on her shoulder as it is.’

‘How was the monorail?’

‘High.’

‘We like to bring visiting specialists in on the monorail their first day here. Gives them a better feel for what it is that paying guests experience. You’ll be given directions to employee parking as part of today’s orientation package. Much less scenic, naturally, but it shaves off fifteen minutes or so of travel time. Unless you’re staying on-site?’

‘No, we’re staying at the Luxor.’ Unlike most theme parks, Utopia was geared toward a full-immersion, single-day experience: there were no overnight accommodations for tourists. Warne had been told, however, that a small behind-the-scenes hotel existed: a first-class resort for celebrities, star performers, and other VIPs, with more spartan quarters for visiting consultants, bands, and overnight staff.

‘What’s with the clocks?’ Warne asked as he struggled to keep up. He’d noticed that, although it was now quarter past eight, the digital clocks set into the towering walls of the Nexus read 0:45.

‘Forty-five minutes to Zero Hour.’

‘Huh?’

‘Utopia is open 365 days a year, 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM At closing, the clocks start a twelve-hour countdown. Lets the cast and crew know how much time they have left until opening. Of course, there are no clocks in the Worlds themselves, but –’

‘You mean it takes twelve hours to get the Park ready again?’ Warne asked in disbelief.

‘Lots to do,’ Freeman said with another small smile. ‘Come on, we’ll take a shortcut through Camelot.’

She steered him toward a massive portal in the nearer wall. Above it, the word Camelot shone in Old English black letters. This typeface was, so far, the only deviation Warne had seen from the rigidly enforced design of the Nexus: even the doors to the bathrooms and the emergency exit signs were in the same reserved Art Deco type.

Three white-jacketed attendants, standing outside the Camelot portal, smiled and nodded at Freeman. She steered Warne past them, through a forest of crowd rails and into a wide, empty queuing chamber. In the far wall stood half a dozen sets of metal doors. On cue, one of the doors slid back and Freeman led the way into a cavernous, darkly appointed elevator.

The doors closed again and that same silky female voice said, You are now entering Camelot. Enjoy your visit. There was a muffled metallic thud and the elevator came to life. Except, Warne noticed, it was neither ascending nor descending: it was moving forward horizontally.

‘Is it a long way to the Park itself?’ he asked.

‘Actually, we’re not really moving,’ Freeman replied. ‘The car just gives the illusion of movement. Studies showed that guests find the Worlds easier to adjust to if they believe it takes a journey – however short – to reach them.’

Then the doors on the far side slid open. For the second time in the last half hour, Warne felt himself stop in surprise.

Ahead lay a wide pavement of dark cobblestones. Quaint buildings – some with thatched roofs, others with peaked gambrels – lined both sides, stretching ahead to what looked from a distance like a large village square. Beyond the square, the cobbled road divided around the bailey of a castle, sand-colored and monolithic. Above its high crenellations flew a hundred multicolored banners. In the distance, he could see more towers and the notched, cruel-looking face of a mountain rising above a grassy hill, snow swirling around its summit. Far overhead, the soaring curve of the dome gave an illusion of endless space. The air smelled of earth, and fresh-cropped grass, and summer.

Warne walked slowly forward, feeling a little like Dorothy, stepping out of her drab monochromatic farmhouse into Oz. Wait until Georgia sees this, he thought. Brilliant sunshine blanketed the entire scene, giving it a clean, lustrous edge. Park employees hurried quickly here and there over the cobbles, but not in the jacketed uniform he had seen elsewhere: here were men in parti-color tights; women in flowing robes and wimples; a knight in armor. Only a small knot of white-blazered supervisors, with palmtop computers and two-way radios, and a crew member from Maintenance, hosing down the cobbles, broke the illusion.

‘What do you think?’ Freeman asked.

‘It’s amazing,’ Warne replied honestly.

‘Yes, it is.’ He turned and saw her smiling. ‘I love to watch people entering a World for the first time. Since I can’t go back and do it again myself, watching somebody else is the next best thing.’

They made their way down the broad thoroughfare, Freeman pointing out attractions as they went. As they passed a bakery, a mortared window opened, releasing an irresistible aroma. Somewhere, a bard was tuning his lute, singing an ancient lay.

‘The design philosophy of all four Worlds is the same,’ Freeman said. ‘Visitors first pass through a set piece – in Camelot’s case, this village we’re in – that helps orient, set the mood. Decompression, we call it. There are restaurents, shops, and concessions, of course, but mostly it’s a spot for the guests to just observe, get acclimated. Then, as you move deeper into the World, we start integrating the attractions – rides, live shows, holographic events, you name it – into the environment. It’s all seamless.’

‘I’ll say.’ Warne noticed that, except for the signboards of the shops and eateries, there was no modern signage anywhere: rest rooms and the cleverly integrated information kiosks were indicated only by what appeared to be highly realistic holographic symbols.

‘Scholars come here because this lane we’re passing through is a superbly detailed reconstruction of Newbold Saucy, an English village depopulated in the fourteenth century,’ Freeman said. ‘Guests come because Dragonspire is probably the second most thrilling roller-coaster in the Park, after Scream Machine over in Boardwalk.’

The castle loomed ahead of them as they approached the square. ‘An exact re-creation of Caernarvon, in Wales,’ Freeman said. ‘With selective compression and forced perspective, of course.’

‘Forced perspective?’

‘The upper stories aren’t full-size, they’re smaller. They give an illusion of correct proportion, but are warmer, less intimidating. We use the technique throughout Utopia, on a variety of levels. For example, that mountain, there, is reduced in size to give the illusion of distance.’ She nodded through the open portcullis. ‘Anyway, inside this castle is where The Enchanted Prince is shown.’

The troubadour’s song had long fallen behind them, but other noises came to Warne’s ears: birdsong, the patter of fountains, and the same softer noise he had heard in the Nexus. ‘What’s that sound I keep hearing?’ he asked.

Freeman glanced at him. ‘You’re very observant. Our research specialists have done pioneering work in womb-feedback research. Once guests fill Camelot, the sound won’t be audible. But it will still be there.’

Warne threw her a puzzled look.

‘It’s the science of reproducing certain womblike effects – temperatures, ambient sounds – to foster a subliminal sense of tranquility. We have five patents pending on it. The Utopia Holding Company has over three hundred patents, you know. We license some to the chemical, medical, and electronics industries. Others remain proprietary.’

Three of which were developed by me, Warne thought silently, allowing himself a little twinge of pride. He wondered if the woman knew the contribution he’d made to the day-to-day operation of Utopia: his metanetwork, which coordinated the activities and intelligence of the Park’s robots. Probably not, considering the way she was showing him around, talking to him like he was some assistant programmer. Once again, he found himself wondering why Sarah Boatwright had summoned him here so abruptly.

‘This way,’ Freeman said, turning down a side alley.

A man in a violet cape and dark knee breeches passed them, practicing his Middle English. Ahead, two burly maintenance specialists walked by, carrying a large metal cage between them. Inside sat a small dragon, tail twitching, crimson scales shimmering in the sun. Warne stared. The damp nostrils flared as air passed through them. He could swear the thing’s yellow eyes gleamed as they fastened upon him.

‘A mandrake, on its way for installation in Griffin Tower,’ Freeman said. ‘The Park’s still closed. That’s why they’re not traveling below. What is it, Dr Warne?’

Warne was still staring after the dragon. ‘I’m just not used to seeing skin on them, that’s all,’ he muttered.

‘Excuse me? Oh yes: that’s your field, isn’t it?’

Warne licked his lips. The costumes, the dialect, the fanatical realism of the surroundings . . . He shook his head slowly.

‘Can be a bit much when no guests are around to break the illusion, right?’ Freeman’s voice was quieter, less brisk. ‘Let me guess. When you arrived, you thought the Nexus was spartan-looking, kind of drab.’

Warne nodded.

‘People often feel that way when they first enter Utopia. A guest once told me it reminded her of a billion-dollar airport terminal. Well, it was designed that way, and this is the reason.’ She waved her hand at the scene around them. ‘Sometimes the realism can get disorienting to guests. So the Nexus provides a neutral setting, a buffer zone, a transition between the Worlds.’

She turned toward a two-story half-timbered residence, lifting the iron latch of the front door. Warne followed her inside. To his surprise, the building was merely a shell, open to its roof. A plain gray door was set into the back wall, a finger-geometry scanner and a card reader beside it. Freeman stepped up to the scanner, placed her thumb in the mold. There was a snap, and the door sprang open. Beyond, Warne could see the cool green glow of fluorescent light.

‘Back to the real world,’ Freeman said. ‘Or as close as we get to it around here.’

And she motioned him through the doorway.

8:50 AM

SARAH BOATWRIGHT, HEAD of Park Operations, sat at the crowded conference table in her office, thirty feet below the Nexus. The office was frigid – the primary air-conditioning ducts ran behind the rear wall – and she cradled her hands around a large cup of tea. Sarah Boatwright was fanatical about tea. Once an hour, like clockwork, the best restaurant in Gaslight sent down a cup of the day’s house selection. Today it was jasmine, first-grade. She watched the small, ball-shaped young flowers uncurl in the hot liquid, and leaned forward briefly to inhale their fragrance. It was exquisite, exotic, alluring.

It was 0:10, Utopia time, and the various park chiefs had gathered in her office for the daily ‘Pre-Game Show.’ She took a sip, feeling the warmth slowly spread through her limbs. This was the real start of her day: not the alarm clock, not the shower, not the first cup of the morning. It all started now, when she gave the day’s marching orders to her captains and lieutenants; when she took the helm of the greatest theme park ever built. It was her job to make sure that, although behind the scenes almost anything might be happening on a given day – two thousand riotous Boy Scouts, irregularities in the electrical grid, a visiting prime minister and his retinue – to the guests, every day had to seem precisely the same. Perfect. She could imagine no job more challenging, or more rewarding.

And yet today, mingling with the usual sense of anticipation, was something else. It wasn’t apprehension – Sarah Boatwright had never had much use for fear of any kind – so much as a kind of wariness. Andrew is here, she thought. He’s here, and he can’t possibly know the real reason. It was the forced duplicity that made her wary: she felt it quite distinctly as she glanced around, mentally checking off faces. Research, Infrastructure, Gaming, Food Services, Medical, Guest Relations, check, check, and check. Bob Allocco, head of Security, sat at the far end of the table, solid as a bulldog and almost as short, his sunburned face impassive. They all looked back at her, alert, serious, attuned to her mood. She preferred things that way: businesslike, brisk. Few jokes were exchanged unless Sarah made the first overture. Fred Barksdale was the allowed exception, of course: his allusions to Shakespeare and wry English humor had the table helpless with laughter on several occasions. And here he came, café au lait balanced precariously atop a sheaf of computer printouts. Freddy Barksdale, head of Systems, with that oversize mop of blond hair and the cute worry lines scribbled across his forehead. Just the sight of him sent a stab of affection through her that drove away thoughts of Andrew Warne, threatened to upset her brisk professionalism. She gave a brief, managerial clearing of the throat, took another sip of tea, and turned to the group.

‘Right. Let’s get it done.’ She glanced down at a sheet of paper on the desk before her. ‘Estimated attendance today: 66,000. The system is running 98 percent operational. Any word on when Station Omega will be back on-line?’

Tom Rose, Infrastructure chief, shook his head. ‘The ride seems to check out fine, green board all the way. But the diagnostics keep giving us an error code, so the governors refuse to supply any juice from the grid.’

‘Can you override the governors?’

Rose shrugged. ‘Sure, we could. And have an army of safety officials climbing all over us.’

‘Dumb question. Sorry.’ Sarah heaved a sigh. ‘I want you to keep on it, Tom. Keep on it hard. That attraction is one of Callisto’s biggest draws. We can’t afford to give it a vacation. Fred will lend you a troubleshooting team if you want.’