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 95. 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 A.M., 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?”
“Well, that’s an improvement, at least. Last month it was gothic rock. The month before, it was—what was it?”
“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 U.S. 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.