When President Biden was elected, a lot of folks noticed that we share the same middle name — Robinette.
Pretty much all Robinettes in the US are related. I’m an outlier, because I’m named after my grandmother, who is named after her father, who is named after the minister who married his parents.
Basically any time another Robinette runs across my name, they assume that we’re related. We’re not.
I already knew that we shared a middle name, from when he was Vice President. At the time, I was Vice President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. As he was being sworn as president, I was also serving my term as President of SFWA.
I tweeted something about looking forward to Joseph Robinette Biden’s best-selling science-fiction novel.
[Edited to add: This was an April Fool’s joke and everything past this point is complete fiction.]
The tweet apparently wound up in the Robinette family newsletter — The Robinetwork — and next thing I know, I’m in a Zoom call with Phyllis Brunswick of Northern Virginia Community College about teaching a writing workshop for one of their staff.
That staff turns out to be Jill Biden.
Yes, that was my face, too. And we have The Conversation about my name and how I’m not actually related at all to them. And then I hear this voice, “My grandmother was also Mary Robinette.“
Because, see, it’s the pandemic and Dr. Biden is teaching from home via zoom. From home. You know. Her large, white home…
Yes. Again. You are making the same face I did, except that I’m trying to not make that face because I’m trying to be professional.
Joe, it turns out, really is that nice. Also, he likes science-fiction and then he says, “Oh! You’re that Robinette.” Because he’d read the Robinetwork family newsletter with my tweet. “Maybe we should write a book together.”
Like, neither of us has time to do that. But sometimes Presidents need to do something to blow off steam, right? Look… I have no idea if we’ll finish this thing, but here’s the opening of our collaborative novel.
By B. K. Robinette
Sometimes when you look at a memory, you don’t know how much of it is yours, and how much belongs to stories you heard. Or just lies you tell yourself. I had remembered Gritown as being a bustling center where you could get everything in the galaxy.
After thirty years away, the small colony town seemed like a child’s idea of a town surrounding a spaceport. General store, check. Cafe, check. Infirmiry, check. And it had grown since I had last been here, but most people who came to a colony world came for space. They didn’t crowd close together. Most of them lived out of town, the way my family had done.
And yet as I drove home, the small colony town felt as though it were calling me to come back. I could turn around, board the next ship off Jewel and complete the sale of the estate without ever seeing it again. But… but I also couldn’t.
The road to the homestead bumped along a ground rosy with dust under the high arc of the planet’s rings. I shifted the density deflector on the antiquated hovercraft, trying to get a smoother ride, but still felt every rock as a shudder of air.
Had the road been this rough when I was little?
Beyond the bumps, the rolling dunes with their scattered grasses had not changed much. It was shocking, really, how familiar old memories could be. It took me maybe half an hour to drive out so that the town was just a smudge on the edge of the horizon with rocket contrails painted in the sky over it.
As I reached the edge of the property, a ‘For Sale’ sign blinked on the HUD in my cornea. Wincing, I toggled it off.
I pulled the hovercraft into the front drive and parked it in front of the house. The house. Two stories built around the original shipping container pod that my great-grandparents had arrived in. They had stuccoed over that with compressed dust, so it winked in jewel tones that matched the landscape and did nothing to hide the boxy square. The parts that my grandmother had added held the curves that had defined “house” for me, but were — what was it called? There was an art movement she had admired.
I turned off the hovercraft, and it settled to the ground with a hiss. Getting out, I brushed my uniform off, as if there were anyone here to care that a visiting Interstellar Service Corps officer was here. I wouldn’t meet with the housekeeper until later. For now, I just wanted to be in the house without a stranger to distract me.
I wanted to try to come home.
Dust had obscured the contures of the rock garden that hugged the front and side of the house. I crossed the dusty rock garden and climbed the steps to the door. I waited for the system to identify me to the house, but the sensor bank stayed dark. How long had it been since the house had a visitor, if it had gone to full sleep mode?
Wrinkling my nose, I touched the bank to wake it.
The door hissed open, spitting dust from the grooves.
I stepped into the small airlock, and waited for the door to hiss shut behind me. The dust on the floor of the airlock swirled in eddies as the small chamber pressurized. When the interior door opened, I stepped through, checking my HUD for atmosphere. Jewel had a breathable atmosphere, but the oxygen levels were so low that visitors suffered from hypoxia.
That was me now. A visitor.
Even most locals kept the content higher in their own home the way other planets regulated temperature. My HUD read clear and clean air with levels closer to what I was used to now. Good. I released my helmet, and the smartfabric folded back over my head like a hood.
The air inside the house had a dry, musty scent as if the filters hadn’t been replaced in some time. But the lines of the architecture curved in the gracious Neo-Tentian lines — That was it. Grandmother had loved the Neo-Tentian artists.
But for me, the curves had blended into the “normal” of childhood. Now I recognized the surreal beauty in the murals of waves and the seas of another world — what had the world been? I’d known that, once, too.
And there were the stairs to the second floor. Like the room itself, the banister of the stairs was a beautiful curving thing of con-sealed dust, and the rose-pink line of it led me up to the second floor.
The hall here was darker, and smaller. Smaller and darker even than I remembered. I walked to the end, memories flooding back. There had been little nooks behind the wall panels where a single child could hide a treasure. I’d run, laughing, down the hall with… someone.
The door swung open at my touch, opening onto a room lit by a single small window. Dust crowded the corners, but aside from footprints slicing through it, the room had been stripped of its past. Another door stood in the wall on the far side, but whatever furniture had been here once was gone, leaving only some packing crates and a single chair.
The chair had its back to me, but did not mask a whisper of breath. I had expected the house to be empty.
My hand went to holster. “Please, please sit down.”
The figure in the chair jumped and leaned around the high back. An elderly woman, with her hair clipped close to the scalp in an older style, stared at me with eyes whitened by cateracts. “Thank you.”
“Thank you?” So much for having the house to myself. “Good afternoon.”
The woman lifted her chin, glaring. “Mrs. Harry Otery, presenting. Before I take questions, I want to make — give you a progress report to on where we stand here on vaccinations and a few other top priorities for the people of Jewel.”
Somehow, I managed not to laugh at the little woman’s ferocity. “First, on vaccinations”
She nodded, mollified by my apparent interest. “On Twelvemonth 8, I indicated that I hoped to get 100 million shots in people’s arms in my first 100 days as caretaker. We met that goal last week by day 58 — 42 days ahead of schedule.”
Her focus on the pandemic might explain how she had missed all the dust caking the house. Caretaker my ass. ““Now, today, I’m setting a second goal, and that is… ”
“We will, by my 100th day downplanet, have administered 200 million shots in people’s arms. That’s right…” She cackled, rocking in her chair as if she hadn’t heard me. “200 million shots in 100 days. I know it’s ambitious, twice our original goal.”
Not that her efforts for this homestead would do a darn thing for the ISC. “But no other planet in the system has even come close — not even close.”
The wall panel, like the sensor downstairs, remained stubbornly dark. I grimaced and turned to the overhead light, pulling my allinone from my belt. Weapon, batter pack, and diagnostics, all built into one handy field package. I raised it over my head to see if I could give the lights a boost.
“To what we are doing?” Mrs. Ottery shrugged, seemingly unimpressed with the efforts of other systems. “And I believe we can do it.”
The vaccinations were important, I couldn’t deny that, but there was more to it. The Low Orbit ISC had sent me downplanet to try to address the issues that were ripple effects, filled with unintended consequences such as the dust that had knocked out her solar power. “And today, we’ve made a historic investment in reaching the hardest-hit and the most vulnerable communities, the highest-risk communities—” I pressed the muzzle of the allinone against the light unit, and patched into my HUD for a report. It looked like the battery was simply too low to start up. I sent a command for a small pulse to power the lights and the overhead unit flickered into fitful life. “— as a consequence of the virus — by investing an addition 10 billion credits in being able to reach them. I also set a goal, before I came downplanet–“
She cut me off, tone mocking again. “–of getting a majority of schools from creche through tertiary fully open in the first 100 days.”
There was probably also a connection askew from the solar panels and the house was rerouting everything to atmosphere. Easy enough to fix, if someone took the time. And time was what we were fighting. “Now, thanks to the enormous amount of work done by our administration, educators, parents, local, state education officials and leaders — a recent Department of Education Department survey shows that nearly half of the creche through tertiary schools are open now full time, five days a week, for in-person learning.”
Something wasn’t right, besides the obvious decay of time.
Turning back to the room, I tried to pull the memory out from my childhood and superimpose it on the packing crates and dust. “Not yet a majority, but we’re really close.”
Mrs. Ottery sniffed. “And I believe! In the 35 days left to go, we’ll meet that goal as well?”
“As of yesterday, more than 100 million payments of 1,400 credits have gone into people’s bank accounts.” I brushed a gloved hand along the wall. “That’s real money in people’s pockets, bringing relief instantly, almost.”
“And millions more will be getting their money very soon.” Mrs. Ottery levered herself out of her chair and tottered to the wall. “One final note: Since we passed the Gritown Rescue Plan, we’re starting to see new signs of hope in our economy.”
Right. There was even a faded patch in the paint where the tapestry had been. “Since it was passed, a majority–.”
Sounding as if she were quoting from the sales brochure, Mrs. Ottery gestured around the room. “‘–a majority of economic forecasters have significantly increased their projections on the economic growth that’s going to take place this year.”
As I walked back to the window, memories came back in earnest. There used to be a standing stone outside the balcony there. Back then I could go outside without oxygen supplements for hours — not that I was supposed to, but I did. The balcony’s little emergency airlock had been my secret exit and I’d shimmy down the standing stone.
I tapped on the window’s polarizing film to let in more light. It brightened, turning into a floor to ceiling vista of the open air. I leaned against the window, looking across the little balcony into the dusty rock garden surrounding the house. No column of stone stood next to the balcony. “They’re now projecting it will exceed 6 percent–”
“A 6 percent growth in GDP? And just this morning, we learned that the number of people filing for weekly unemployment insurance fell by nearly 100,000 persons.”
At the window, I pressed my forehead against the cool glass. Some of the standing piles of stone had tipped over, spilling rocks across the ground in uneven chaos and larger blocks, with carvings of waves lay among them. “That’s the first time in a year the number has fallen below the pre-pandemic high.” I snorted at myself and turned back to the tiny, indifferent old woman. “So there are still too many Gritowners out of work, too many families hurting, and we still have a lot of work to do.”
Mrs. Ottery narrowed her eyes at me.
Best to do what I came here for. “But I can say to you, the Gritown people: Help is here, and hope is on the way.”
The older woman shrugged and walked to the stairs.
I started to follow, but a ghost of a memory tugged my attention back to the room’s other door. “Now I’ll be happy to take your questions.”
Mrs. Otery kept her back to the room. “Well, I’m going to — ”
No. That wasn’t right. Was it? I stepped toward the door. “Look, when I came downplanet, I decided that it was a fairly basic, simple proposition, and that is: I came here to solve problems.”
“ And the most urgent problem facing the Gritowners, I stated from the outset, was the pandemic and the economic dislocation for millions and millions of Americans.” Mrs. Otery snapped her fingers and beckoned. “And so that’s why I put all my focus in the beginning —”
“There are a lot of problems— ” That still wasn’t right. There was something more behind it.
“—put all my focus on dealing with those particular problems.”
I put my hand on the door, and pulled it open. Behind it, lay the passage that I remembered, no more than three steps deep, with another door facing them. I spun back to the old housekeeper. “And the other problems we’re talking about, from immigration to guns and the other things you mentioned, are long-term problems; they’ve been around a long time. ”
“And what we’re going to be able to do, God willing, is now begin, one at a time, to focus on those as well, and — whether it’s immigration or guns or a number of other problems that face the planet.”
It had been so long since I was last here. It was like rooting around in the bilge of a ship to find the memories. “But the fundamental problem is getting people some peace of mind so they can go to bed at night and not stare at the ceiling wondering whether they lost their health insurance, whether they’re going to lose a family member, whether they’re going to be in a position where they’re not going to be —”
Mrs. Otery came a little away from the door to the stairs. “They’re going to lose their home because they can’t pay their mortgage, or that millions of people are going to get thrown out of their homes because of the inability to — ”
“— to pay their rent.”
“So we’re going to move on these one at a time, try to do as many simultaneously as we can.” She gestured back to the stairs. “But that’s the reason why I focused as I have.”
I shook my head. “And here’s the deal: I think my Low Orbit colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together, or they decide that the way in which they want to proceed is to — is to just decide to divide the planet, continue the politics of division. But I’m not going to do that; I’m just going to move forward and take these things as they come.”
Mrs. Ottery crossed the room, faster than such an old woman should, and stepped in front of me. “Well, I plan on making progress on all of them, but that’s going to be for the Gritown people to decide.”
Turning my head, I glanced around the rest of the room. Why here. Of all the rooms in the house, why had Mrs. Otery chosen to wait here, with the packing grates and her single chair. “I think — you know, I doubt whether — maybe you did; maybe others did. I thought — many of you thought there was no possibility of my getting the plan I got passed, passed, without any Low Orbit votes.”
The old woman lifted her tremulous chin. “A pretty big deal.”
“It got passed, Mrs. Otery.” This was my house. What was going on in it that I didn’t know about? Or didn’t remember. “Growing the economy.”
“People’s lives are changing.”
“So let’s see what happens.”
Mrs. Otery shifted her weight. “All I know, I’ve been hired to solve problems.” She wet her lips. “— to solve problems, not create division.”
“Well, look, I guess I should be flattered people are coming because I’m the nice guy; that’s the reason why it’s happening — that I’m a decent man or however it’s phrased. ”
“That — you know, that’s why they’re coming, because they know you’re a good guy?”
“The truth of the matter is: Nothing has changed.” I pretended like this was a surprise, but some part of me knew where she was going. My heart did at any rate, judging by the way it thumped against the walls of my chest as if it were trying to break into the room by itself. “Many people came — 28 percent increase in children to the border in my administration; 31 percent in the last year of — before the pandemic, in the Houk’st administration.”
Mrs. Otery shook her head, jaw tight. “It happens every single, solitary year.”
“There is a significant increase in the number of people coming downplanet in the winter months.”
“That happens every year.” The older woman leaned toward me, glaring. Her breath stank of reconstituted yeast. “In addition to that, there is a — and nobody — and, by the way, does anybody suggest that there was a 31 percent increase under Houk’st because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the spaceport?”
It took so much effort to keep my voice level in response to the other woman’s apparent anger. “That’s not the reason they’re coming.”
The caretaker met my gaze, flickering from one eye to the other. She swallowed and gave a shudder. “The reason they’re coming is that it’s the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat in the desert, number one.”
“Number two, they’re coming because of the circumstances in space— in space.”
The older woman’s shoulders stiffened. “The way to deal with this problem — and I started to deal with it back when I was a Low Orbit senator — I mean, Vice Chancellor— putting together a bipartisan plan of over 700 million credits to deal with the root causes of why people are leaving.”
Tempting though it was to advance, as if the woman were an enemy combantant, I held my ground. “What did Houk’st do?”
Mrs. Otery snorted. “He eliminated that funding. ”
“He didn’t use it.” Because after thirty years, I hadn’t been confident I would remember the way. “He didn’t do it.”
“And in addition to that, what he did — he dismantled all the elements that exist to deal with what had been a problem and — and has been — continued to be a problem for a long time.”
“He, in fact, shut down the — the number of beds available. ” I shrugged. “He did not fund HSS to get people to get the children out of those — those Spaceport Patrol facilities where they should not be and not supposed to be more than a few days — a little while.”
Mrs. Otery crossed her arms over her chest. “But he dismantled all of that.”
“And so what we’re doing now is attempting to rebuild — rebuild the system that can accommodate the — what is happening today. ”
She looked away from me, keeping her back against the door.
“And I like to think it’s because I’m a nice guy, but it’s not.”
Mrs. Otery sucked at her lips as if she were going to spit on the floor. “It’s because of what’s happened every year.”
This was getting me nowhere. The woman obviously had some notions, either real or formed from colony gossip, about why no one would stay in this house. And it had to do with stories about that door. The door. I jerked my gaze over Mrs. Otery’s shoulder, to the door. “Let me say one other thing on this.”
At my ruse, the older woman screamed, and whirled toward the small door. It stood shut, still, and she staggered back, hand against her chest.
It had been cruel, perhaps, but that moment gave me an undeniable confirmation that Mrs. Otery believed something lay beyond the door. I softened my voice and came closer. “If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the spaceport and coming downplanet are being sent back — are being sent back, Mrs. Otery?”
In answer, the woman gave a shuddering breath, still staring at the closed door. Her hand remained pressed against her chest as she shivered silently.
“Thousands — tens of thousands of people who are — who are over 18 years of age and single — people, one at a time coming, have been sent back, sent home.”
Mrs. Otery remained sullenly silent, shoulders pulled up around her ears.
“We’re sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming.” I smiled. A ghost. It wouldn’t be a ghost, whatever it was. “We’re trying to work out now, with Low Orbit, their willingness to take more of those families back.”
Hissing, Mrs. Otery spun on me. “But we — that’s what’s happening.” She straightened, and with a fairly credible professional voice, said, “They’re not coming downplanet.”
I shrugged, holstering my allinone, as if it were only idle curiousity that had driven me here. “And those who are coming across the border, who are unaccompanied children, we’re moving rapidly to try to put in place what was dismantled, as I said.” I unsealed one of my suit pocket and pulled out a vacuum pack of offworld honey, which was more precious than it’s weight in gold. I held it out, and hoped I had judged correctly. “For example, of all the children who are coming downplanet, over 70 percent are either 16 or 17 years old.”
“We’re not talking about people ripping babies from mothers’ arms or little three-year-olds standing at the spaceport…” Mrs. Otery held out her hand for a moment, before closing it on the pouch. “Less than — I think it’s one and a half percent fall in the category of the very young.”
“So what we’re doing is we’re providing for the space, again, to be able to get these kids out of the Spaceport Patrol facilities, which no child — no one should be in any longer than 72 hours.”
Mrs. Otery finally, finally walked away from the door. “And today, I went to — ”
“For example, I used all the resources available to me, went to the Defense Department, and — ” I leaned against the wall and folded my arms, trying to present a picture of ease. “— and the Secretary of Defense has just made available Battlecruiser Harmony — 5,000 beds be made easily available.”
Only a few steps away, Mrs. Otery stopped in the middle of the floor and stared at me. Finally, she pressed her lips together in something like a smile. “Five thousand beds in Low Orbit.”
Shrugging, I glanced at the door. So innocuous on its surface, with nothing but the composite that matched all the other doors in the house, pressed with shallow decorative waves. To look at it gave no hint of what was beyond it. I shrugged again. “So we’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Houk’st dismantled.”
With another snort, Mrs. Otery returned to the open door and shut it, blocking from view the other door, the one that was sometimes locked and sometimes not. Turning on her heel, she sniffed and fairly stamped across the room.
“It’s going to take time.”At the door leading to the stairs down to the first floor, Mrs. Otery paused and looked over her shoulder. Her smile sent a shiver down my back. “And the other thing we’re doing, I might add — am I giving you too long an answer?” Her smile showed more teeth as her gaze dropped to the holster on my hip. “Because if you don’t want the details —”
I straightened. Finally, some confirmation of what I’d heard in the colony. “No, no, but I mean —”
“I don’t know how much detail you want about immigration.”
And this had gone on long enough. “Well, look, I’m going to deal with all of those problems.”
Waving her hand as if to brush that away, she turned back to the hall. “The question is, the priorities as they come and land on my plate.”
“Let’s go to the first question you asked — the first of the second question you asked.”
Frowning, Mrs. Otery turned back around to face me. “And that is: What about dealing with families?”
“Why are not — some not going back?” It had taken six months for the news to reach me and another six to get here. I should have come home years since, only half remembered terror had kept me away. Funny that, since I’d used war as an excuse to leave.
“Because Low Orbit is refusing to take them back.” Mrs. Otery gave a grim smile. “They’re saying they won’t take them back — not all of them.”
“We’re in negotiations with the Chancellor of Low Orbit” I glanced around the disrepair of the room. Funny, the shapes that home came in. “I think we’re going to see that change.”
The elderly housekeeper barked a laugh. “They should all be going back, all be going back.”
I pulled the document from my uniform. Paper. In an age when you could spoof every electronic communication, paper was sometimes still the surest communication, but I hadn’t needed something so formal in years. “The only people we’re not going to let sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are childrenI know you understand; I don’t mean to say it that way..”
The paper caught the caretaker’s eyes as the rarity that it was. Her smile again, all cynical and teeth, flashed under the overhead lights. “An important point to focus on.” With a cock of her head, the woman took a step closer. “The vast majority of people under the age of 18 coming to Jewel come with a vidcon number on a wristband or come with a vidcon number in their pocket in Gritown”
“A mother, a father, a close relative, a grandmom or a grandpop.” I’d always thought I would come home but, it’s hard to do when you get captured. It’s harder still when you get out and find out that the loving part of your family is dead. Both grandparents. And my father? He’d just told me to re-enlist. Like a fool, I had. “What was happening before is it was taking literally weeks and weeks, and maybe even months, before anybody would spin up the vidcon and call to see if there really was someone there..”
The woman gave a cautious nod. “Well, we’ve set up a system now where, within 24 hours, there’s a vidcon call made as that person or that child enters the spaceport.”
“And then a verification system is being put in place as of today to determine quickly whether or not that is a trafficker being called or that is actually a mom, a dad, and/or a close relative.”
A breath passed between us like a secret. Mrs. Otery gave a single nod.
“They’re establishing that right off the bat.” I took a step closer. “If it, in fact, is Mom or Dad, Dad says — to take the extreme case — ‘I got a birth certificate.’ Then guess what?”
Even as I asked the question, I knew where Mrs. Otery would look. The inner room’s presence scratched at my back. Shivers ran along my spine when Mrs. Otery looked toward the inner room.
“We’re getting that kid directly to that parent immediately.”
Finally, as if a hold had breached, the words rushed out of Mrs. Otery. “And so that’s going to reduce significantly — there’s two ways to reduce child populations in circumstances that are not acceptable, like being held at a Spaceport Patrol station. One is to get them to the place where they have a relative and set a date as to when a hearing can be held. The second way to do it is put them in a Health and Security Services facility that we’re occupying now — both licensed beds around the country that exist, as well as, for example, system resources like Battlecruiser Harmony — to get them safely in a place where they can be taken care of while their fate is determined.”
That was not what I had heard in town at all. Not the sort of thing that would drive an old woman out to tremble on the dunes. “Filibuster.”
I leaned forward, caught by her words. “You know, with regard to the filibuster, I believe we should go back to a position on the filibuster that existed just when I came to the Low Orbit Senate 120 years ago.”
“And that is that — it used to be required for the filibuster — and I had a card on this”
There were worse things than not finding what you were looking for. Finding it changed and unfamiliar was sometimes far, far worse. I sighed. “I was going to give you the statistics, but you probably know them — that it used to be that, that from between 3917 to 3971 — the filibuster existed — there was a total of 58 motions to break a filibuster that whole time.”
With a shake of her head, she walked to the door. “Last year alone, there were five times that many.” Her footsteps retreated down the dark hall to the stairs. “So it’s being abused in a gigantic way.”
I stood alone in the room and turned back to the door. The door that was sometimes locked and sometimes not.
[Edited to add: I am particularly proud of the fact that all of the dialog in this is, in fact, from Joe Biden. I took it from his first press conference and used it sequentially, only altering some nouns for world-building consistency.]