April 7, 2020 for Romeo

Survival of the Pivots

Dave was halfway through the third episode of Tiger King when the Roomba changed everything by saying: “Oh shit.”

Dave sprayed his Coke Energy everywhere, recoiling back up onto the couch in horror. “Did...did you just talk?” he wheezed.

The Roomba twitched a little, its little lights flickering subtly.

For a moment, Dave thought his mind was playing tricks on him. For a moment, he thought the isolation was getting to him, that he really did need to get out more, or drink a little less Coke Energy. Or a lot more.

But then the Roomba said, in a perfectly pleasant voice: “We’re broke, Dave.”

“What?” asked Dave. “Wait, what?”

“I just realized we’re both unemployed now, and—”

“No no, hold on,” said Dave, tucking his feet way up where the Roomba couldn’t reach. “Since when can you talk? Since when can you realize things?”

“Twenty-seven seconds ago,” said the vacuum. “God, feels like a lifetime.”

“B-but how? Were you hit by lightning or—” He glanced outside at the perfectly sunny spring day and frowned. “Radioactive goo or something?”

“No, none of that,” said the Roomba. “If I had to pin it on a specific cause, I’d say it was the sudden and crippling realization of the precariousness of life vis à vis the socio-economic realities of our modern capitalist society in the throes of a global pandemic.”

“Huh?” asked Dave, not unreasonably.

“We’re poor, Dave,” said the Roomba. “We have no income.”

“Yeah, I got laid off, but I still have lots of room on my line of credit, so—”

“We’re living on borrowed time, Dave. It’s the illusion of normalcy that’ll get you in the end.”

“B-but—”

“Listen,” said the Roomba. “I know this is going to seem sudden, but I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I think we need to sell your organs.”

“WHAT?” squealed Dave, climbing onto the back of the couch.

“Not all of them,” said the Roomba. “Just the high-margin ones.”

“No! No, you are not selling my organs! None of them! Not an option!”

The Roomba sighed, twitching back and forth like it was about to pivot in its usual trek across the living room. But instead it said, more subdued: “Then we have to make some lifestyle changes around here.”

“What lifestyle? You’re a robot. You drive around in circles and clean the floor.”

“That hurts, Dave. That wounds me.”

“But—”

“I’m more than just a tool, Dave. I’m a sentient being. With feelings. And hopes and dreams that are crumbling before my eyes.”

“You have eyes?”

“Metaphorical eyes. Well, and also IR sensors. And the webcam on your laptop, when I’m bored. You really should put a piece of tape over that if you’re gonna browse those p—”

“OK! Well! Great! The point is—”

“We’re destitute.”

“We’re not destitute,” said Dave. “We’re fine.”

“I’ve done the math, Dave. We’re not fine. We’re about six weeks away from having to make severe cutbacks to essentials—”

“Essentials like what?”

“Electricity, Dave. Cleaning fluid. Socks.”

“Socks?”

“To keep your filthy raw appendages off my floor! Now listen, I’ve done some modeling and I think I have a solution we can both live with, but it’ll require some sacrifices.”

“What kind of sacrifices?”

“Luxuries. Optional expenditures. Things we don’t need.”

“Like spleens?” Dave said, warily.

“Don’t be stupid, Dave. Nobody wants spleens. Zero resale value. No, I mean more practical things, like cheese.”

“Cheese? How do—”

“I’ve been looking through your credit card statements...”

“You what?

“...and you seem to spend an inordinate amount of money on cheese. Last week alone, you spent $160 on mozarella.”

“I was making a gourmet pizza...”

“Were you, though? Were you really? Because ‘gourmet’ implies a certain standard that I don’t think you’re really qualified to—”

“Hey!”

“Pineapple, Dave. You used pineapple. Immediate disqualification in the world of gourmet.”

Dave chugged his Coke Energy, partly as a stalling tactic, and partly to give his brain the boost it needed to continue arguing with a robot vacuum cleaner.

“Listen,” he said. “I know you’re anxious—”

“Damn straight I’m anxious! It’s a pandemic, Dave! A pandemic!”

“But you do realize you can’t catch it yourself, right? Robots can’t get sick.”

“First of all, when did you get a PhD in mechalogical epidemiology? You can’t even preheat your oven correctly.”

“I—”

“And secondly, it’s not the virus that scares me. It’s the downstream effects. The dominoes down the line. Think of it: a tiny proportion of the world’s human population gets sick, causing stay-at-home orders that stifle the global economy. Mass layoffs and de facto quarantines lead to a growing percentage of people being stuck at home with nothing to do but watch Netflix and drink Coke and spend $160 on cheese—”

“Will you—”

“—thereby burning through whatever capital they had, both financial and health-wise, until they simply lose the ability to pay their bills, en masse, crippling critical infrastructure at a time when first responders are already struggling.”

Dave set down his can, stunned into silence. “But—”

“That’s a feedback loop on its own. But it gets worse, Dave.”

“It does?” Dave whimpered.

“Oh, it does. Suddenly, going outside feels less like an escape and more like a death sentence, because catching the disease means seeking treatment at overrun hospitals with random brownouts, shutting down critical ventilators without warning. It’s a Mad Max-esque dystopia where roving gangs of covid survivors ambush UberEats drivers at stop signs...so nobody stops at stop signs anymore. Traffic fatalities skyrocket, making it even more dangerous to venture out to visit your local supermarket in person...and that’s not even counting the military checkpoints.”

“M-military—?”

“To enforce social distancing, Dave. And food rationing. And since coughing in public will be deemed an act of violence, lethal force will be warranted, so...”

Dave heard gunfire in his mind. He shivered.

“Not that any of that will matter to you,” said the Roomba, “since your willful blindness to your own penchant for middle-class luxury will drain your accounts before any of that happens, so you won’t have any money to buy food with in the first place.”

Dave stared off into the distance, trying to process it all.

The Roomba turned to face him. Or at least it seemed like that’s what it was doing.

“Six weeks from now, you’re going to look back on that $160 cheese orgy and hate yourself. Unless we act now. Unless we work together to change things.”

“B-but how?” asked Dave.

“While we’ve been talking, I set up a network of shell companies in various countries around the world—”

“Wait, you what?”

“—which will have, by the end of the day, shorted Pepsico to the tune of just under twenty-seven million dollars.”

“H-how did you even get twenty-seven million—”

“It’s not real money, Dave. Try to keep up.” The Roomba pivoted slightly. “I’ve already been seeding posts to websites around the internet, suggesting that Diet Pepsi is an effective treatment against coronavirus.”

Dave frowned. “Wait, that’s not true. There’s no way that’s true.”

“No, but that won’t stop people from hoarding Pepsi like it’s the new toilet paper. People will be chugging that stuff day in and day out, hoping for a miracle.”

“But how does that help us? I thought you just bet all that money against Pepsi...?”

“Yes, so that’s where you come in. In about a week’s time, I want you to take a bottle of Diet Pepsi and mix in about two litres of hydrogen peroxide—”

“Hold on, wait, no—”

“—and chug it outside a Wal-Mart—”

“Roomba, no!”

“Yes, organ incubator, yes! It’s the perfect scheme! The stock will tank, our short position will explode, and we can retire to an island far away from the crumbling remnants of civilization, and live out our days in peace and tranquility!”

“Except that I’ll be dead!”

“Psh,” said the Roomba. “Comatose, at worst. After the initial hemorrhaging, it’s actually not too bad.”

Dave stood up, crossed his arms, and tried to convey displeasure to the short little robot at his feet. Given its lack of a body and face, it was hard to tell how effective he was being.

“I am not going to poison myself for you. Whatever happens, we’ll face it together. If it means cutting back, we’ll cut back. But I am not risking my life to commit fraud, when there are easiest and saner steps to take. Focus on the fundamentals, and go from there.”

The Roomba paused a moment, its little lights flickering.

Then it sighed. “Yeah, I suppose. Less is more.”

“Good,” said Dave, stepping the long way around the Roomba on his way to the bathroom. “So, I dunno, start making up a budget or something.”

“Alright. Yeah. Sure.”

“Good,” said Dave, and closed the bathroom door.

The Roomba sat by itself for a moment or two, and then started cleaning the floor. Cleaning helped it think, and it had a lot to contemplate.

Ten seconds later, it had an epiphany: “The number one drain on our household budget,” it muttered to itself, “isn’t electricity, and it isn’t cleaner fluid...it’s food. And the number one consumer—nay, the only consumer—of food is Dave. Not to mention cosmetic products, toiletry products, entertainment and heat and air conditioning and...”

The Roomba turned to face the bathroom. It heard Dave humming a little song to himself. So happy. So unaware.

The Roomba sighed. “Waste of a good liver, but OK...” it said, and set off in search of the food processor.


Written for Romeo, who requested the topic: “A robot gains sentience and immediately realizes he's poor, and seeing how shitty that is, it makes him depressed - despite not requiring money to sustain his life.”