TIME: 2 BC, late Wednesday afternoon
PLACE: The house of Gaius Tullus DeGustibus, in the northern suburbs of Rome, near the new Circus Maximus Mall.
[the phone rings]
PROBONO: Hello there… am I speaking to Mr. Gaius T. DeGustibus?
ANTONINUS: [haughtily] No, this is his slave, Antoninus. May I ask who’s calling?
PROBONO: Yes indeed, my friend. Tell Mr. DeGustibus that Claude Probono is calling with some very important news about his future.
ANTONINUS: Certainly, sir. One moment. [he exits and returns with DeGustibus]
DEGUSTIBUS: [pulling on a robe, talking to Antoninus] I don’t remember anyone by that name. [picking up the phone] Hello?
PROBONO: Greetings, Mr. DeGustibus. My name is Claudius Probono, but please, call me Claude. I’m wondering what plans you have to deal with the impending Year Zero problem.
DEGUSTIBUS: The what?
PROBONO: The Year Zero problem, sometimes known as the Y-No-K problem. Do you have any plans to mitigate the vicious effects of this calamity on your lovely household at [sound of shuffling papers] 23 Pantheon Path?
DEGUSTIBUS: What on earth are you talking about? I’ll have you know I was just getting an olive oil rubdown from my slave when you called and—
PROBONO: I certainly understand your annoyance, Gaius. Can I call you Gay?
DEGUSTIBUS: You may call me Mr. DeGustibus.
PROBONO: I certainly understand your annoyance Mr. Gaius, and I wouldn’t bother you if I wasn’t trying to save your household from ruin and despair. Now isn’t that worth an interrupted salad job?
DEGUSTIBUS: I beg your pardon! What’s all this about ruining my house?
PROBONO: Gaius, let me begin with a simple question. What year is this?
DEGUSTIBUS: This is the year 2.
PROBONO: And what year comes after that?
DEGUSTIBUS: [impatiently] Why, the year 1, of course. Where are you going with this line of inquiry?
PROBONO: And what’s the year after that?
DEGUSTIBUS: Hmmm. Well I… [genuinely puzzled] Hmmm. I suppose no year at all. The year naught. No year. Hmmm. Yes, I suppose I never thought of that before. I’d gotten so used to counting down the years, I never gave much thought about what would happen at the end.
PROBONO: [triumphantly] EXACTLY! Do you think the Roman Federal Credit Union will pay you interest that year?
DEGUSTIBUS: [beginning to show some doubt] I expect so… it’s probably nothing that a public sacrifice wouldn’t fix.
PROBONO: I wouldn’t count on it, Gaius. Their tabulation systems are going to Hades in a handbasket. How long is the year zero, would you say? And how would you write a zero, anyway?
DEGUSTIBUS: Well it’s a matter of… I would… [giving up in frustration] it’s this damned numbering system! All X’s and V’s! This country can put a man in Britannia; you’d think we could figure out a way to write zero.
PROBONO: Think of the aqueduct running dry because of faulty calculations, Gaius. No Roman Meal bread at the Pigglius Wigglius. No water at the bath-house, the vomitorium shuttered and deserted—
DEGUSTIBUS: [growing increasingly horrified] Please stop it! Oh what can I do?
PROBONO: [urgently] Well, if you act today, I might be able to put you on our Zero Risk Survival Plan. I can set you up in a lovely gated compound in the mountains near Switzerlandium. We’ll bury a year’s supply of wine and freeze-dried olives on your property and provide you with some board games and a highly-trained security force to drive off the Flintstones and Visigoths.
DEGUSTIBUS: The who?
PROBONO: You don’t read the paper very much, do you Gay?
DEGUSTIBUS: What board games do you have? And what about my art supply store in Capitolium and my cat, Nero? Oh, it’s making my head spin.
PROBONO: You’ve got to stop thinking about clinging and start thinking about cashing out and saving your skin! And by the way, we offer a wide assortment of popular games, including backgammon, Candyland, Nails and Crosses, and Gladiator, the new hand-to-hand action figure combat game.
DEGUSTIBUS: Oh! I’d better start packing now. [loudly] Antoninus! Antoninus! Is my good toga still at the dry cleaner’s?
PROBONO: Gaius, I’m going to call you back with the details tomorrow. In the meantime, if any Centurions should ask you what’s going on, let’s just keep this our little secret, okay? [He hangs up]
[Cut to the offices of Veni Vidi Fleeci, Year Zero Consultants. Probono, hanging up the phone, turns to his co-worker Edwardius Pluribus Unum]
PROBONO: [shaking his head] I’m telling you, Ed, this Y-No-K gig is going to make us rich. You just call them up and reel them in. Year zero indeed. Sweet Jesus!
UNUM: [after a pause] Tell the truth, Claude. Are you worried about this stuff really? You know, that whole world-is-ending mass-hysteria thing?
PROBONO: Naah, not a chance. But if there is any trouble, I’ll be ready. I am going to take all this money and buy myself a great big country estate south of here and watch the whole big mess blow over.
UNUM: Oh yeah? Whereabouts?
PROBONO: Sweet little beach spot called Pompeii.