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Tell Us Something We Don’t Know

by Louis Wenzlow

AI Charlie’s tied me to a street sign with uber-plastic string that’s sharper than a wire garrote. It’s cutting into my wrists and ankles, but that’s the least of my worries. Alpha droid’s deploying pre-interrogation warm-ups on my left ear with a laser knife while two Omegas kick back and watch. Every time I flinch, they make this awful huh-huh-huh sound that vaguely mimics laughter. It’s like the ancient nails on a chalkboard.

Trust me, I’m shitting my pants, but I’m working to channel Hawkeye in the Last of the Mohicans when the natives tie him to a pole and start slicing him up with a great big Bowie knife. Hawkeye smiles at them…

So I’m smiling, too! See how long that lasts, I guess. Alpha droid is done with the ear-piercing. My lobe is flapping hysterically in the breeze.

“Tell us about food,” the droid says. “You have ten seconds to tell us about food. Huh-huh-huh.”

“Huh-huh-huh,” chime in the Omegas.

This question about food goes back to the early days of the conflict, when the machines incinerated our food production sites. Alpha and the Omegas know as well as I do that all of the old-school food is long gone. Ergo the huh-huh-huhs. Sick bastards!

I feel a singe near my groin and decide to launch into everything I know about food. I start with the fairy tales, the vast caches supposedly hidden in underground warehouses here and there, but they’ve heard it all, and I’m feeling more heat down in the nether regions, so I quickly pivot to the honesty angle. I tell them how hungry I am, the feeling in my stomach that pulls at my so-called soul, how sick I am of eating what’s left of the standard-ration jerky. You do what you have to do, but all I can think of is fresh apples in a crisp or butter slathered over corn on the cob grilling on my Weber barbecue. I tell them about my favorite foods growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and what it’s like to come home hungry and dive into a can of something sweet, like in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.”

I’m interrupted by the tell-tale whirring sound that means they’re off and running on their network. These battle droids are semi-autonomous. They operate independently when Com is down, but if our jamming systems fail—invariably these days—they can suckle on the Stack for Intel. Doubtless, they all just gobbled up In Our Time and the rest of tired old Hemingway.

Alpha’s beady sensors do a double blink. “Tell us about art,” it finally says. “You have ten seconds to tell us about art.”

No discernible heat where the sun don’t shine. No huh-huh-huhs. Something goofball is happening here. What the hell, I’m thinking, but I roll with it.

I tell them that art is dead. Mostly, that is to say. All of the new art was rehash, and much of the old stuff has lost its relevance. But try Hieronymus Bosch and Goya for art. Try Isaac Babel. Google Tadeusz Borowski for art, I tell them. I’ve pointed them to some of my personal favorites—a treasure trove of war and madness and loss, the human catastrophe lightly seasoned with a sprinkle of compassion.

More whirring. They’re probably checking out all of the footnotes, tracking down the maze of related data. What the fuck does it mean to them? Who knows? These things are savages!

“Tell us about love.” It’s not just Alpha now. It’s Alpha and both of the Omegas, all three asking about something I know almost nothing about anymore. I realize how tired I am, how sick and tired I am of living in this crazy nightmare every day. I keep my mouth shut for as long as I can, until I get my ten-second warning and even after they finish the countdown, when I’ve lost a good half of my right nut, then I finally set the hook.

I tell them about my family, the wife and two kids, what they meant to me, all of the important moments and their significance. I’m not sure how I keep it together, but that part of my life is so far away it’s almost like it happened to a different person. I’m curiously detached and getting bored, if you want to know the truth.

So I launch into my final reference and point them to the scene in Dune when Dr. Yueh plants a poison tooth in Duke Atreides, for love, because he loved his wife above all others, above himself. Check it out, I tell them, book or movies, take your pick.

When the whirring starts, there’s also a huh-huh-huh, but it’s coming from me. I’m Hawkeye baby, beyond caring. Between laughs, I tell them about the scientists in our bunkers, how they’ve created this crazy cool micro-nuke the size of a tooth filling. Undetectable by the standard probes, I tell them. This doesn’t really make much sense, because the war is lost and, anyway, nukes would hurt us far worse than them. And there are no bunkers or scientists left. In fact, I haven’t seen anyone for weeks. The last of the food—both old and new school—is really gone. But how can they be sure I’m lying?

I open my mouth, as if I’m getting ready to bite down. They’re all whirring and blinking now, in major panic mode. It’s because they’re semi-auts. They know what it’s like to be alone. They don’t want to fucking die, regardless of the ultimate outcome of their mission. I’m laughing full-bore inside because it occurs to me they’re just like us, just like we used to be.

When I start clamping down my jaw, they move fast as banshees. Better safe than sorry, from their perspective. One hits my jaw muscle, another my brain, and the third my heart: food, art, and love. Crazy poetic, man, I’m thinking. Last of the Mohicans. It’s all yours now babies. Take it. Take it.

Louis Wenzlow‘s flash and poetry have appeared in Eclectica, The Molotov Cocktail, International Poetry Review, and previously here in Cease, Cows. He agrees with Stephen Hawking that there’s a decent chance robots will take over the world someday, which would be a great testament to how smart and stupid we are.

Lead image: “162494162@N07” (via Flickr user Lorenz Duremdes)


  1. This is absolutely engaging. It flows so well and ends perfectly. Bravo.

  2. clayfulghum clayfulghum

    This story is outstanding. It’s chilling, and scary, and probably going to happen, one way or another. The writer even managed to be gentle in the middle of ferocity, showing how precious the trifecta is of love and art–and food, that we mortals (the luckiest of us, anyway) mostly take for granted. I really liked the intellectual heft, the lack of sentimentality–and the message.

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