Cass’s dad told her what DisneyWorld was, and then she was even more excited than before.
I was over the moon happy.
I was finally getting to come along!
The adults made the smart decision and totally excluded us kids from the planning. Completely. At least after the first announcement.
Oh, they told us what was happening, about once a week. Then Cass would drag me off and we’d spend the next week researching and doing virtual tours and all that good stuff.
I mentioned she’s a frakking genius, right?
The first week, all we did was search for information on Disney, and boy were we psyched! We even let Shawn look in on what we were doing, we were so excited; Cass had a bit of a prickly relationship with him, but I thought he was cute, so I talked her into letting him in. Occasionally.
And it just kept getting better the more we looked. There were full-VR recordings of all the rides, so we plotted and planned what we were going to do and how many times we were going to do them.
By the middle of December, I think everyone at school was wishing we’d disappear, because our trip was the topic of conversation with us. It was okay, because even when nobody would listen to us we had each other, and it was all okay. At least until the passport trip.
We all had to go to Duluth to get passports and exit visas.
Because the Imperium is stupidly centralized and they are past masters at erecting bureaucratic obstacles to prevent their citizens from doing things which are legal but the Imperium frowns on. One of those is getting a passport. They know they’re not the friendliest country on the continent, and so they don’t want their citizens traveling outside and seeing just how badly off they are in the Imperium. Some travel is a necessity, of course, and freedom of movement is guaranteed in their Constitution, but there’s nothing to stop them from making it a bitch to do.
So they do.
The passport itself is easy to get. You fill out a form, do some biometric identification, pay your money, and in about a day you get notified you have a travel document headed your way. Or you can wait and get it more or less immediately, if you’re going to be using it and don’t want to make two trips. That’s the option our folks decided to take, and that’s where the nightmare really got going.
The easy thing would have been to head over to Grand Rapids and catch a jump over to Duluth. Up, over, down, be there in about thirty minutes boarding to debarking. Unfortunately, as we discovered, Big Sky doesn’t look kindly at people crossing their borders without permission.
We still could have done it except for the Customs and Border Inspection on arriving in Duluth; without any proof of our (the kids) Imperial citizenship, there would have been problems. Big problems. Like, “How do you feel about prison food?” problems. Oh, Dad might have gotten off, with his diplomatic background, but Cass’s folks? They’d still be there.
So we had to go to Duluth. And we had to drive.
Now, to give you an idea of how remote Key West is, the shortest practical road route from there to Duluth is nearly 450 kilometers, something like four hours’ drive. The better route is 500 plus.
Can you say nightmare?
Two vehicles, so you had the problem of doing a convoy even if only on a small scale. Naturally Cass and I were going to ride together. Which meant we were riding with her parents, because my parents had a three-seater they’d bought ‘specially when it became clear I wasn’t going to be leaving them any time soon. Their other two vehicles were little two-seaters.
That left the problem of Shawn, because him plus Cass plus me for four hours would result in bloodshed, probably his. But he didn’t want to ride with my parents; fair enough, I suppose.
So in the end Dad went over to Grand Rapids with Mom and rented a vehicle big enough for everyone to ride in and keep us separated: an RV.
Yes, we still had RVs when I was growing up. In fact, we still have them. They just won’t die off, because there’s always a percentage of the population who wants to get up and go places without being tied to hotels and the like. They’re a bit more advanced than the boxes on wheels you folks have, granted, and much more efficient too.
Gotta put on my ‘adult’ hat here. After the Green Wars, hydrocarbons as a fuel source was pretty much dead. The EV revolution of the ‘30s had dropped the percentage way down, to about 25% of all vehicles, but there were still some segments of the market which were dominated by gasoline power right into the ‘70s. RVs were one of these, but even they had to adapt.
The manufacturers were clever, I’ll give them that much. When faced with the inevitable, they adapted. Electric motors on every axle gave enough power so the cliché of ‘too big to get out of their own way’ no longer applied. Batteries built into every flat surface, under the body, in the walls, in the ceiling, provided buckets of power. Solar panels on the top let it recharge en route, and a hydrogen fuel cell linked to a generator meant you never ran dry. Plus you could plug in overnight to boost the charging speed.
The model my Dad got was big; no surprise, right? Seven people, and three of us had to be kept separated.
Cass and I got the bedroom in the back to ourselves. We spent all four hours playing and reading and just having a wonderful time watching the world go by. We could hear Shawn whining about being stuck with adults and I remember giggling about it. Not terribly nice, but he couldn’t hear me through the door.
We left Key West right after breakfast and were in Duluth at lunchtime, so we ate and then went to the NIDoS (Northern Imperium Department of State) building for the photos and processing.
I don’t actually remember too much about the afternoon, just that it was long and boring. We had rooms in a hotel overnight, and we promptly claimed a room of our own. As Cass said, very loudly and with no self-consciousness whatsoever, “I’m not sleeping with my brother!”
So we got our own room.
I think Shawn won, though, because he got his own room, too.
The next morning we all trooped over to NIDoS and waited.
And that’s when the problems could have really started, because if there’s anything worse than a couple of bored six-year-old girls it’s a couple smart and curious six-year-old girls.
We wandered off; well, not entirely wandered, I guess. We did say we were going for a walk and Dad sort of waved at us. The adults were all busy talking adult things (boring!) and not paying attention. And see, the beauty part of being smallish and cute is anyone we saw who might have turned us back just smiled at us and let us go.
I mean, what trouble could we be?
Well, we wandered around the building for a while, poking our heads into any room we could open and saying ‘hello’ to anyone we saw. We rode an elevator for I don’t know how long. A half hour maybe? It was a tall building, the tallest we’d ever seen, and some of the elevators were on the outside. We could see everything; admittedly, it was just the docks and the beginnings of Lake Superior, but we were six. It was cool to us.
Eventually we ended up on the top floor, which was the dining commons for their high officials; the regular bureaucrats had a couple cafeterias on lower floors, which we thoroughly explored.
This place was nice. I mean, white tablecloths and linen napkins nice. Silver silverware nice. Crystal water glasses nice. Far too nice for us, and we knew it, so we were about to leave when a voice called out to us.
I wanted to ignore it but Cass was too polite. She turned and said, “Yes?”
“Come over here, please.” It was the only person in the room, other than a server standing against a wall trying not to look too bored.
We went. This was an adult, after all, and not only an adult but one with the air of someone who was used to being listened to. Besides, he was sitting down and in a good suit; worse came to worse, we could outrun him.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Just looking around,” I answered. I figured the truth would be good, but not all of it. He might not appreciate knowing we’d been wandering the halls for who knew how long.
“Yes, sir.” Always call adults “Sir” or “Ma’am”, I learned. Makes ‘em happy.
Now that was the magic word. We were both in the middle of a growth spurt which would end up putting about a dozen centimeters on each of us, so I was always hungry that winter, it seemed, and so was Cass.
“Yes, a little.” Never admit to how much you could eat; I’d learned that, too.
“Well, sit down and keep me company.”
Oh, the food was wonderful! He told us his name was Mr. Davis and he was the Consul, whatever that meant. We sat and chatted and ate whatever he ordered for us. He told us stories about the jobs he’d done, all over the planet, and how this was his last post before a nice, quiet retirement. We told him about our summer of adventures on the trike, and he laughed and laughed.
I think he enjoyed it more than we did. The NIDoS tower was modern and fancy, yes, but it was also pretty sterile, you know? Businesslike?
I think he was lonely.
When we were done he said he’d bring us back to our parents. We rode down the elevator together, smiling and happy and still talking, and he guided us to the passport office. Our folks were still waiting, and they looked at us being escorted and suddenly there were storm clouds rolling onto their faces.
“We’re not in trouble!” I said immediately.
Cass added, “No, we were just with Mr. Davis, weren’t we?”
And she looked up at him with that smile.
“Yes. Charming young ladies,” he said, and then he did a double take.
“Hal Briggs? Is that you??”
Turned out he and Dad had served somewhere very hush-hush years ago. Our new friend was thrilled. He stood and talked with them, and talked, and talked! Finally they ran out of words, at least for a bit, because he asked, “Why are you here?”
Dad explained they were waiting for their documents and the visas and Mr. Davis got all red in the face; he knew how long we’d been there, since we’d been with him for a chunk.
“I’ll clear this up,” he announced and he marched over to the window.
The bored attendant didn’t even look up, simply said, “Take a number and wait to be called for service.”
“How long until the Briggs and Cassidy passports are ready?”
He still didn’t look up, nor did he check his terminal for information. “They’ll be done when they’re done. Sit down or I call Security.”
“Your professionalism is sorely lacking,” Mr. Davis said, and something in his tone must have set off alarms. The attendant actually looked up.
“Who are you? If you’re waiting for a passport, you have to have a number and wait to be called. I haven’t called you.”
“Please get your supervisor.”
That penetrated the hair gel.
”Whatever, they’ll tell you the same thing as I just did.” But he got up and disappeared.
In a couple minutes he returned with an older woman, presumably his supervisor. He was talking rapidly, probably trying to get his story in before she could hear the other side. She was nodding, but the nodding stopped when she raised her head and saw Mr. Davis.
“Counsel Davis,” she said, all obsequiousness. “You asked to see me?”
“My friends have been waiting for several hours for their passports and visas,” he said, stretching the truth a bit. “And your associate won’t give any sort of answer.”
“I’m certain they’re almost ready,” she said, trying to calm the waters.
“Ms. Quen, I know how your department works, and I’m certain they’re ready now but sitting in someone’s ‘OUT’ box waiting to be picked up. Get them.”
She disappeared, returning in a moment with all the documents.
“Thank you,” he said, taking them and handing them to Dad. “I’d like you to clear some time on your calendar for a meeting tomorrow to discuss customer service. Nine o’clock. My office.”
He turned away before she answered, dismissing her, and then he was all charm again. The adults talked for a bit more before Mr. Davis said he had to go back to work and Dad said we had to leave, too, so we might get home before dark.
And that was the end of the great passport adventure. We still had a couple weeks before our big trip began, but now it was really real!