Detail from the Exit Strategy cover art.
Image: Tor.com

Murderbot is back! The AI with a bad attitude (who isn’t necessarily a bad robot, despite that scary name) returns October 2 in Exit Strategy. It’s the final installment of Martha Wells’ Hugo and Nebula-winning novella series—ahead of the author’s next project, a full-length Murderbot novel.

But first, as these exclusive glimpses of Exit Strategy’s opening chapters reveal, Murderbot’s got to track down its former owner, and to do that, the space station’s most-wanted ’bot has to believably blend in with humans for a while. It’s risky, and it also forces Murderbot to engage in that most arduous of human tasks: clothes shopping at the mall.

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Chapter One

When I got back to HaveRatton Station, a bunch of humans tried to kill me. Considering how much I’d been thinking about killing a bunch of humans, it was only fair.

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Ship was on approach and I was waiting impatiently to pick up HaveRatton’s feed. Since Ship was a minimum capacity bot pilot and had all the brains and personality of a heat shield generator, I was also monitoring all its inputs and caught the navigation alert when it came in. (I knew Ship wouldn’t betray me intentionally, but the chance of it doing so unintentionally was resting at a solid 84 percent.)

The alert was from HaveRatton’s Port Authority, and ordered Ship to divert away from its usual slot in the private commercial docks to another section at the end of the public passenger embarkation zone.

I still had the schematic of HaveRatton from when I had boarded Ship here on the way to Milu. I could see that section of the embarkation zone was right next to the PA’s docks, where the deployment point for the station’s security response team was.

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Oh, that’s not suspicious at all.

Was it about me? Maybe, probably? Ship had carried Wilken and Gerth, who had been sent to sabotage GoodNightLander Independent’s attempt to reclaim GrayCris’ abandoned terraforming facility, so it might be about them. Wilken and/or Gerth were hopefully being held by GI somewhere now, and GI might have requested HaveRatton do a routine search for evidence.

It didn’t matter. If there was anybody waiting for Ship, I couldn’t be aboard when it docked.

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I could direct Ship to a different dock but that wasn’t a great idea. The PA would not only know someone aboard had done it, but that that someone was riding a bot-piloted cargo transport whose feed manifest said it was currently traveling without crew or passengers and was on minimal life-support. Even stations as big and heavily armed as HaveRatton had to be careful of anomalous approaches that might turn out to be raiders attempting to board. (It would be a stupid attempt, since Ship couldn’t carry enough raiders to do anything but die messily in the embarkation zone, but I’d spent my entire life on security contracts trying to stop humans from similar catastrophic stupidity.) It might worry the station command enough that they would fire on Ship. Ship might be unresponsive but it was doing its best and I didn’t want it hurt.

So it was a good thing I still had the evac suit.

I’d used it to escape Abene’s shuttle after the combat bot attack—another thing that had happened that I wished I could delete from my memory. (Deleting memories like that doesn’t work. I can delete things from my data storage, but not from the organic parts of my head. The company had purged my memory a few times, including my whole mass murder incident, and the images hung around like ghosts in an endless historical family drama serial.)

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(I like endless historical family drama serials, but in real life, ghosts are way more annoying.)

Earlier when I was getting ready for station arrival, I had packed the evac suit into a supply locker. I figured since Ship seldom ran passengers along with cargo, it would be a long time before somebody finally noticed it wasn’t on inventory and actually checked its docs and registrations. Now I started unpacking it, fast.

I really didn’t want to get caught.

I stuffed my bag under my jacket and got the suit on and activated. As Ship made its docking maneuver and eased up on the designated slot, I cycled through the cargo module airlock on the opposite side. Ship’s drones gathered to watch me, confused as to why I was going out the wrong door and beeping sadly about it. As Ship locked on to the station, I slipped out the airlock and sent a close and seal request. As I pulled myself along Ship’s outer skin, I deleted the last few bits of me from its memory.

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Bye, Ship. You were there when it counted.

If a report of what had happened on Milu had gone out on a faster transport (Ship’s progress was leisurely at best) then it could have easily beat me here. They might know that a SecUnit had come to Milu, saved some humans, failed to save a human form bot, killed the shit out of three combat bots, and that Ship was the only transport who had left Milu right after all that happened.

Me not being aboard when they searched, with no sign of having been there, would obscure the issue somewhat. It’s not like I needed any food or used waste disposal. I’d used a little extra air and the shower but I’d purged the recycling logs. A forensic sweep might show that I’d been there. If forensic sweeps worked like they did in the entertainment media, which, come to think about it, I had no idea if they did or not.

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(Note to self: look up real forensic sweeps.)

I reached the side of the station, doing a physical scan for security cams or drones or whatever while searching for feed and comm signals. Other ships were locked on nearby, but all I could see were hulls and bulky cargo modules, no large viewports with humans looking out wondering who that random escaping SecUnit in the suit was. I caught a few signals, but all were either debris detectors or cargo bot guides. I followed the line of magnetic clamps used by the cargo bots to secure modules to the station, and found a bot in the process of removing a module from a large cargo transport. I accessed the bot’s feed channel and checked its work orders. The transport it was currently working on was bot-piloted, crew on leave, passengers disembarked. I asked the cargo bot if I could go inside the transport before it inserted the new empty module. It said sure.

(Humans never think to tell their bots things like, say, don’t respond to random individuals wandering the outside of the station. Bots are instructed to report and repel theft attempts, but no one ever tells them not to answer polite requests from other bots.)

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I climbed inside the empty module structure and up to the airlock. I pinged the transport, it pinged back. I didn’t have time to bribe it, so I sent it the official station hauler’s security key I had just pulled from the cargo bot’s memory, and asked it if I could come inside and walk through and out to the dock. It said sure.

I cycled through the lock, took off the evac suit, and found a storage locker to pack it into. At the main airlock, I borrowed the security camera to take a look at myself. I’d removed the blood and fluid from my clothes back on Ship, in the cleaning unit in its passenger restroom, but there hadn’t been anything on board to fix the projectile and shrapnel holes. Fortunately the jacket I was wearing was dark and the holes weren’t that visible, and the shirt collar was just high enough to cover the disabled data port in the back of my neck.

Normally that wasn’t a problem, as most humans had never seen a SecUnit without armor and would assume the port was just an augment. If the humans who had diverted Ship were after me, they probably knew that a SecUnit without armor would look like an augmented human.

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(Possibly I was overthinking this. I do that; it’s the anxiety that comes with being a part-organic murderbot. The upside was paranoid attention to detail. The downside was also paranoid attention to detail.)

I made sure I was running the code I’d written to make my walking gait and body language more human, deleted myself out of the transport’s log, and walked out through the main airlock into the station docks.

I was already in the feed, using it to hack into the station’s weapons-scanning drones, telling them to ignore me. It was always important to hack the weapon scanners, since I have two inbuilt energy weapons in my forearms. This time it was more important, because among other things I had an armor-piercing projectile weapon and ammo in my bag.

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It was one of Wilken and Gerth’s weapons that I’d taken when I left Milu. I’d spent some time on the return trip using Ship’s tool suite to take it apart and rebuild it into a more compact form, so it was easier to conceal. So now I was not only a rogue unit, I was a rogue unit carrying a weapon designed to shoot armored security. Which is just playing to the humans’ expectations, I guess.

But fooling the weapons scanners was so much easier now than it had been the first time I’d done it while leaving Port FreeCommerce. Part of it was learning the quirks of the different security systems I was encountering. But what really helped was that all this coding and working with different systems on the fly had opened up some new neural pathways and processing space. I’d noticed it on Milu, when I’d been handling multiple inputs without any Hub or SecSystem assistance, to the point where I thought my brain was going to implode. Hard work really did make you improve; who knew?

Following my map, I left the secure (supposedly secure) dock area and took the walkway toward the station mall. It passed over the end of the public embarkation zone and the PA dock where Ship had been directed.

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I had been in crowds of humans enough times by now I shouldn’t panic anymore—I had ridden on a transport with a whole crowd of humans who thought I was an augmented human security consultant and talked at me nonstop nearly the whole time. Except there was a little panic.

I should be over this by now.

Every nerve in the organic parts of me twitched as I blended with a large group of transport passengers. It helps that in stations like this, humans and augmented humans are distracted. Everybody’s a stranger, everybody’s checking the feed for info or communication or entertainment while they’re walking. As the walkway passed in front of Ship’s slot, I spotted a big group down on the embarkation floor. With the rest of the crowd of humans, I turned my head to glance down.

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Twenty-three of them in power suits, all heavily armed, forming up for a boarding operation. None were in SecUnit armor, and I wasn’t picking up any pings, so they were probably all human or augmented human. Forty-seven security drones of various sizes and armament circled over their heads in a deployment-ready swarm. I caught a station security drone and had it zoom in on the logo on the shoulder of a suit. I didn’t recognize it immediately, except for the fact that it wasn’t a HaveRatton station logo. I tagged it for a future image search.

HaveRatton Station Security was there, but they were back at the entrance to the Port Authority zone, watching the boarding operation. So whoever it was had contracted with HaveRatton to bring an armed team in. That’s expensive. And worrying. You don’t need twenty-three humans in power suits and a flotilla of security drones for an evidence search.

Station security had to be using their drones to keep an eye on the security company stamping around on their dock area. I checked my captive StationSec drone’s recording buffer and found nearly an hour of intercepted comm traffic. I downloaded it and ran a query for the word SecUnit. It hit almost immediately.

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SecUnit. You think this thing is really onboard?

Intel says possibly. I—

With its controller?

No controller, dim-iot, that’s why they call them rogues.

Oh yeah. It was about me.

#

On Milu’s terraforming facility/illegal alien remnant mining platform, Wilken and Gerth had recognized me as a SecUnit. It had come in handy at the time, but it wasn’t something I wanted to happen again.

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Ever again.

My friend ART had changed my configuration, removing up to a centimeter from my arms and legs so I wouldn’t match a scan for SecUnit standard body shape. ART’s alterations to my code had made parts of me grow sparse, soft, humanlike body hair, and changed the way my skin met the edges of my inorganic parts, so they looked more like augments. It was subtle, something ART thought would lessen human suspicion on a subliminal level. (ART’s pretentious like that.) The change in code had also made my eyebrows and the hair on my head get thicker, and that made my face look far more different than such a slight change should. I didn’t like it, but it was necessary.

But it wasn’t enough of a change to fool humans familiar with SecUnits. (Granted, running up a wall in front of Wilken and Gerth had been a dead giveaway before they even got a real look at me.) I could control my behavior (well, sort of, mostly) but I needed to control my appearance.

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So while I was still on Ship, I had used ART’s templates to alter my code temporarily to let the hair on my head grow at an accelerated rate. (Accelerated because if I screwed up and started getting near the bipedal furry media monster end of the spectrum, I’d still have a chance to fix it.) I gave the hair on my head another two centimeters of growth, then stopped it when I hit my target.

To check my results, I’d pulled up an image from my archived video, and found a good view of my face from Dr. Mensah’s camera. I don’t usually use cameras to look at myself because why the hell would I want to do that, but I had been on contract then and still collecting all my clients’ feeds. From the timestamp, the image was from when we’d been standing outside the hoppers, when GrayCris was hunting us, and she had asked me to let the others see my face so they would trust me.

I’d compared that old image with my current image via drone cam. After all the changes, I did look different now, and more human.

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I didn’t like it even more.

But now that I was back on HaveRatton with an as yet unidentified security force looking for me, it was coming in handy. The next step was to get rid of my clothing and its obvious projectile holes. At the edge of the station mall, I forced myself to walk into one of the big travelers’ supply places.

I had used station vending machines to buy memory clips, but I had never been in an actual shop before. Even though the vending was all automated, and I sort of knew what to do based on what I had seen on the entertainment feed, it was still weird. (And by weird I mean an agonizing level of anxiety.) Fortunately there are apparently humans as clueless as I was because as soon as I crossed the threshold the shop’s feed immediately sent me an interactive instruction module.

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It guided me to one of the empty vending booths, which was completely enclosed. Telling it to shut the privacy door was such a relief my performance reliability percentage went up half a point. The booth scanned my hard currency card and then offered a set of menus.

I picked the one that was labeled as basic, practical, and comfortable for travel. I hesitated over long skirts, wide pants, full-length caftans, and tunics and jackets that went to the knees. The idea of combining them all, and having a lot of clothing as a buffer between me and the outside world, was attractive, but I wasn’t used to it and I was afraid that would show. (It had taken me long enough to figure out what to do with my arms and hands while walking and standing still; extra clothing meant that much more potential for attention-drawing mistakes.) The scarves and hats and other head and face coverings, some of which had human cultural functions, were also tempting, but it was exactly the kind of thing a SecUnit trying to hide might use, and would just flag me for additional security scans.

I’d worn two different sets of human clothes by now, so I had a better idea of what was most efficient for me. I picked workboots not much different from the ones I’d stolen back on Port FreeCommerce, self-sizing and with some shielding to protect against heavy things dropping on them, not as important for me as a human. Then pants with lots of sealable pockets, a long-sleeved shirt with a collar to cover my data port, and another soft hooded jacket. Okay, so it was extremely similar to what I had been wearing, just in a different arrangement of black and dark blue. I authorized the payment, and the packets dropped out of the slot.

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When I put the new clothes on, I had a strange feeling I usually associated with finding a new show on the entertainment feed that looked good. I “liked” these clothes. Maybe I actually liked them enough to remove the quotation marks around “liked.” I don’t like things in general that can’t be downloaded via the entertainment feed.

Maybe because I’d picked them myself.

Maybe.

I got a replacement knapsack, too, a better one with more sealable pockets. I dressed, got a discount because I was willing to dump my old clothes into the shop’s recycler, and left the booth.

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Back out in the station mall, blending with the crowd, I started downloading new entertainment media and transport schedules, and started a feed search for news reports. My image search had turned up a name for the security company logo: Palisade. I started a search on it, too.

I needed to get off HaveRatton as soon as possible, and figure out a good way to get my memory clips to Dr. Mensah.

The clips I had stashed in my arm had a lot of data drawn directly from the Milu diggers about the strange synthetics that GrayCris had illegally extracted under the guise of a terraforming operation. And the memory clip I had found in Wilken and Gerth’s gear was even more revealing. It was records of their work history for GrayCris, carefully organized and arranged, ready to submit to journalists or a corporate rival. I think it was a blackmail threat, or an attempt to ensure that GrayCris didn’t try to kill them. Whatever it was, I had it now.

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Taking it and the other clips to Mensah in person would be the most secure method, and that’s what I meant to do. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to see her again. (Or more accurately, for her to see me again.)

Thinking about her brought up a whole knot of confused emotion I didn’t want to deal with right now. Or ever, actually. But it wasn’t a decision I had to make immediately. (Yeah, “Or ever, actually” applied there, too.) I could always break in to wherever she was staying and leave the clips in her belongings with a note. (I’d thought a lot about the note. I had other options but would probably go with “Hope this evidence against GrayCris helps, signed Murderbot.”) I needed to concentrate on how to find out if she was still on Port FreeCommerce or had gone back to the Preservation Alliance without—

My newsfeed search turned up a string of hits and the tagline on the top-ranked most-popular made me stop in my tracks. Luckily I was in a wide place in the mall, where the big transport lines had their offices, and the sparse crowd spread out and flowed around me. I made myself move over to the nearest office entrance, and stood in the spot where their proprietary feed was displaying advertising and informational vids. It wasn’t ideal, but I had to be somewhere where I could stand still and just concentrate on the news story.

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Dr. Mensah had been accused by GrayCris of corporate espionage.

How the hell had we gotten to that point from the last newsburst I’d picked up here? There had been multiple lawsuits in play, but GrayCris had clearly been the aggressor in the violence against the survey teams. Besides all the other evidence, we had my feed recording and Mensah’s suit camera video of GrayCris representatives admitting guilt. Not even the cheap stupid half-assed bond company that had owned me could fuck that up.

Except apparently it could. And Dr. Mensah was a planetary leader from a non-corporate political entity; how could she be charged with corporate espionage? I mean, I don’t know anything about it because we never got education modules on human law stuff, but it sounded wrong.

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I got past my initial outrage and managed to read the rest of the newsburst. GrayCris had made the charge, but nobody knew if they had brought an actual litigation (counterlitigation? Was that a word?) or not. It was all speculation because the journalists couldn’t find Mensah.

Wait, what?

So where was she? Where were the others? Had they gone back to Preservation and left her alone? From what I’d been able to research, Preservation’s attitude to its planetary leaders was extremely casual. At home, Dr. Mensah didn’t even need security. But it was stupid to leave her alone on Port FreeCommerce where anything could happen to her. Had happened to her.

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I wanted to put my fist through the nearest corporate logo. Idiotic humans don’t understand how to be safe, idiotic humans thought every place was like stupid boring Preservation!

I needed more info; obviously I’d missed some important developments. I worked my way back up the news timeline, searching the related tags, doing it thoroughly, trying not to panic. According to records that Port FreeCommerce had made available to get the journalists off its back, Arada, Overse, Bharadwaj, and Volescu had all left for Preservation about thirty cycles ago. Mensah was supposed to follow with the others, but hadn’t. So far so good.

The next data point was buried in another story so deeply even I almost missed it. There had been a news release by GrayCris that Mensah had gone to TranRollinHyfa to answer their litigation, but Port FreeCommerce couldn’t confirm.

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Where the fuck was TranRollinHyfa?

A frantic search on the public feed information bases told me TranRollinHyfa was a station, a major hub, where close to two hundred companies, including GrayCris, had their corporate headquarters. So, not exclusively enemy territory. Funny how that didn’t make me feel any better.

The next relevant newsburst speculated that Mensah had gone to TranRollinHyfa to pursue testimony on behalf of Preservation and DeltFall in the suit against GrayCris. The newsburst after that speculated that she was going to testify in GrayCris’ possibly apocryphal suit against her. Terrifyingly, the two entities that might actually know anything, the Preservation Alliance and my stupid half-assed ex-owner bond company on Port FreeCommerce, had made no official statement except to say she was definitely on TranRollinHyfa.

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Mensah wasn’t stupid, she would never have gone near hostile corporate territory without protection. If she had gone to TranRollinHyfa voluntarily, the bond for a trip to visit GrayCris, who had already tried to kill her once, would be expensive to buy and more expensive to execute, and the company would have to agree to anything to get her out, including sending gunships. Safer and therefore cheaper to stay on Port FreeCommerce, the bond company’s major deployment center, and make all the parties with testimony come there. That’s what the company would have insisted on.

Conclusion: Mensah hadn’t gone to TranRollinHyfa voluntarily.

Somebody had tricked, trapped, or forced her to go. But why? If GrayCris was going to do that, why wait so long, why give all the witnesses involved time to bring their suits and testify and give their evidence to journalists? What had happened that had panicked GrayCris so much that . . .

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Oh. Oh, shit.

Chapter Two

I needed to go, and go fast. And not on a bot-piloted transport. Not finding me on Ship would throw off Palisade’s pursuit, but not for long, and if they had any brains at all they would be checking automated transports. I pulled schedules for extra-fast crewed passenger transports (No, not a direct trip. I’m apparently an idiot, but not that big an idiot.) and found one leaving in four hours heading for a major hub. From there, I could get where I needed to go.

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I hadn’t traveled like this before, mainly because I hadn’t wanted to. At first, I’d doubted my ability to hack weapons scanners while I was hacking the ID and payment systems. But now I had no excuse not to, thanks to Wilken and Gerth.

I had ended up with their emergency go-bag, filled with hard currency cards and a variety of ID markers. The markers are meant for subcutaneous insertion and contain identifying information. Normally they wouldn’t be readable by anything but the scanners designed for the purpose, but with a little fine-tuning my scan had been able to view the encoded data, and I had examined them all on the trip back to HaveRatton.

Identity markers in the Corporation Rim usually had a lot of information on the bearer, but these were temporaries meant for travelers from outside the Rim. They had a string of numbers from a non-corporate political entity authorizing travel, place of origin, and a name. Obviously this was why Wilken and Gerth had them, so they could switch identities at need. Corporate political entities are more interested in keeping track of their own humans than anybody else’s. I had seen on the media that travel was easier for non-citizens inside the Corporation Rim than citizens, sub-citizens, and all the other categories each different political entity had to keep track of their humans. (It could be worse. At least humans could cut out their ID markers; I had corporate logos etched onto parts of me I couldn’t get rid of.)

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I went to a public rest area, paid for an enclosed cubicle with the hard currency card, and picked an ID with the name Jian from Parthalos Absalo. I peeled back the skin around my shoulder joint and inserted the marker under it. I had to dial down my pain receptors in that area, but there was no inconvenient leaking.

I’d been pretending to be human off and on since I left Dr. Mensah, but this was the first time I’d had anything on me that officially labeled me as human. It was weird.

I didn’t like it.


Excerpt from Exit Strategy: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, reprinted with permission. Courtesy Tor.com. Exit Strategy will be available October 2.

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