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Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells4.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsRogue Protocol, the third Murderbot novella, continues the storyline from the first two and amps up the action considerably. Having finally discovered the cause of the massacre on RaviHyral, Murderbot has decided to further its investigations into the shady practices of GrayCris, the megacorp that attacked Murderbot’s clients as well as an additional survey team back in All Systems Red. GrayCris, to put it mildly, holds human life cheap.

When Murderbot sees a broadcast interview with its former client, Dr. Mensah, discussing an abandoned GrayCris terraforming station on the distant world of Milu and the possibility the whole operation may have been a front for illegally recovering alien artifacts, Murderbot decides to go there itself and investigate on the chance there might be incriminating data to dig up.

Milu is not an easy world to get to. But once Murderbot finds passage, it’s surprised to discover a couple of human security personnel also traveling to Milu, where they eventually team up with a group of researchers belonging to an independent company looking to reclaim the terraforming station. Murderbot links up with the group’s robot, Miki, who has such a childlike, innocent devotion to its human owners that Murderbot is both fascinated and repelled. The researchers’ leader, Dom Abene, really does treat Miki like a fully human member of the team, and beyond that, exactly like a beloved family member. Though it’s not as if human beings have never been friendly to Murderbot, its own deep-seated anxieties and antisocial tendencies have never allowed it to reciprocate that kindness. And certainly not to the degree anyone would think of it as a “pet robot.”

Considering how we’re introduced to Miki, it would have been easy for the character to become just too cloying. After all, when Murderbot first contacts Miki, she immediately believes Murderbot’s transparent cover story with such total trust you wonder if she’s actually a danger to the humans she considers her dearest friends. But Miki ends up having a remarkable amount of autonomy in her own decision-making. She will become a personal catalyst for Murderbot, her choices influencing the way Murderbot views its own interactions and behaviors towards humans.

The story uses its setting — an abandoned station in the dark and stormy upper atmosphere of a hostile alien world — to nerve-wracking effect, as the narrative builds tension leading up to explosive action, all of it contained in a lean and efficient 158 pages. And unlike a lot of stories in similar spooky settings, none of the characters make the kinds of clichéd dumb decisions contrived for no reason other than to put them in danger, a testament to Martha Wells’ skill at plot construction. There may be one or two loose ends that will have you scratching your head (it appears the team completely abandons one supporting character, in a manner that makes you wonder if Wells just forgot about her and editor Lee Harris just didn’t notice). But mostly, Rogue Protocol is an adrenalizing adventure that will leave you eager to see Murderbot’s quest for justice through to its bitter end.

Followed by Exit Strategy.