To Terminator, With Love
Dexter Wu's life is hectic, but he's managing—mostly. He's on the verge of finishing grad school, and that means putting the final touches on his number one project: HAL, a social robot and children's storytelling companion. But his best friend is leaving the country for good, his birthday's coming up, he's swamped with studying for finals, and he hasn't slept in days.
He's also going to destroy the world.
At least, his robot is, according to the possibly untrustworthy Agency, an organization whose mission is to protect the world at all costs. After his birthday party turns into a fight for his life, Dexter's simple life of fast food and Netflix binges is replaced by a glitchy oracle, the world's douchiest secret agents, and an ever-increasing chain of conspiracies.
With the help of Andre, a mysterious and disenchanted young agent turned rogue, Dexter sets out to plead his case to the Director in an effort to get his life back to what counts as normal—but he should know by now nothing is ever so easy.
“I swear to all that is holy that I will shut you off and let you stay that way if you don’t shape up, son,” Dexter Wu threatened HAL with a deep frown.
HAL, who stood at an impressive twenty-seven centimeters tall, turned glowing red eye on Dexter and whirred softly in what Dexter could only interpret as discontent.
Dexter sighed, tried to take the tweezers to HAL’s open chest and was swiftly met with a stiff claw to the nose.
“Christ! That’s it, you’re getting it.” Dexter huffed in frustration.
The door to the B Lab opened with an audible groan, and Dexter looked up to see his best friend, Sandhya, smiling at him as she held up a greasy bag of Five Guys.
“Um, should I call CPS?” she asked.
Dexter ignored her in favor of reaching out with his free hand eagerly to receive the bag. Sandhya raised a challenging eyebrow and smirked at him. “What makes you think this is for you?”
Dexter pretended to be put out by her withholding. It wasn’t an unfamiliar ritual, Sandhya busting in unannounced bearing gifts then making him work for it a little. It had been that way as long as he’d known her, back when she was a junior and he only a lowly freshman. She had shown him the ropes of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, told him which professors to avoid, and had basically been his first—and for a long time, only—friend at the whole university.
These days, their friendship had moved into a comfortable relationship of easy banter, arguments over hypothetical robot-led apocalypses, and a mutual exchange system of Five Guys and Chipotle, proving their usefulness to one another above all things.
Dexter reminded her of this, and she rolled her eyes and sighed in clear defeat.
“My queen, my rock, my savior.” Dexter sighed reverently as she pushed the bag of food into his hands.
“Thought you might be hungry. No one’s seen you since breakfast, and I know you probably haven’t been out of here since you came in. You’re not the only one who uses this lab, you know.”
He smiled guiltily. “You know, when science calls—”
“You answer,” she finished with a roll of her eyes. “So I’ve been told.”
HAL whirred and lifted its head joint so its red ‘eyes’ were staring directly at Sandhya, its sensors acknowledging a new presence in the room. She cooed at it sweetly and gave it a tiny wave. Dexter took a large bite of his burger and pointing accusingly at her. “Don’t give into that puppy dog face. It’s trying to manipulate you.”
“Is your mean ol’ creator torturing you?” she cooed at HAL exaggeratedly. “What’s he doing to you, poor thing?”
“I’m just defragging it. It hates being defragged, you know that.”
Sandhya laughed and rolled her eyes at him. “HAL doesn’t hate anything, Dex. It’s a robot.”
Dexter managed to swallow his burger without choking. Sheepishly, he nodded. “Hah, yeah, I know that. I was just messin’ with you.”
Sandhya shot him a smile that was more knowing than he liked. She stretched purposely and leaned casually against the workbench. “So, it’s your birthday.”
“The most wonderful time of the year.” Dexter sighed dreamily.
Sandhya smirked. “Besides two tickets to paradise so you can take HAL on a romantic getaway, what do you want for your birthday?”
Dexter took another bite of his burger and chewed thoughtfully. “More burgers?”
Sandhya laughed. “No.”
“That would be kinda hard to get.”
“Can I wish for more wishes?”
“This isn’t a genie thing, Dexter.”
Dexter threw his hands up in exasperation. “I don’t know what I want, Sandhya!”
She sighed and pinned him with a daring glare. “Alright, I guess that means it’s open season on what to get you. I’m thinking something… pink. Pink and frilly. Maybe some glitter.”
Dexter raised his eyebrows and wiped greasy fingers on his shirt. “I know you’re trying to tease me, but that sounds kind of awesome. Let’s go with that.”
She laughed and slapped his arm good-naturedly. “You’re impossible, you know that?”
“You love me.”
“I do. For some sick, sad, strange reason, I do,” she said with a sigh, though there was an obvious fondness in her voice. “Oh! Speaking of loving you, I took the liberty of putting together a little party at your dorm tonight at nine o’clock. There will be booze, tacos, more booze, and various nerd games to keep the masses entertained.”
“Tacos?” Dexter asked brightly.
“Seriously,” she said around a smile small. “Come to the party, get drunk, be merry. I didn’t want to say anything, but I’m getting kind of worried about all the time you’ve been spending in here. A lot of us have. I don’t know if it’s just you being super anal over finals or if it has anything to do with me leaving, but…”
Dexter shoved the last bit of the burger into his mouth to stall having to answer. Sandhya had graduated that year, full honors. He had stood right there, on the left, directly in front of the stage where the acoustics were best, just so he could whoop and holler when the MC called her name as she walked across the stage. He’d seen her look in his general direction, embarrassed but pleased, with a wide smile he could only mirror.
When she told him afterwards that she would be heading back to India after her internship ended next year, he had done a valiant job of hiding the way his stomach had dropped and landed in a gory puddle somewhere near his feet. Like always, Sandhya had picked up on what he was hiding, and she had been super attentive and concerned with his needs ever since. It was embarrassing, and so, so very needed.