Role Playing (June 2021)

By Alison McBain


Paki felt it in the pit of his stomach — that sickening drop when the doctor told him the bad news about the cancer. Instantly, he saw in his mind's eye the small and fluorescent-lit room from decades before: his eight-year-old self at the Pretoria hospital and Mother lying in a creaky metal bed, her skeletal frame dark against the blank, white sheets.

Mother’s hand trembled on the top of his head, but she didn’t have the strength to draw her fingers across his scalp like she once did — before she collapsed at their home. Before she was taken to the hospital and before they told him she was sick. Her hand settled down on him, weighing less than a storm petrel, but carrying all the weight of the world. The feathers of her fingers stopped moving and she murmured, “My brave little Paki…”

Those were the last words she said before she flew away, carrying away his love and leaving behind a child’s guilt at being helpless to save her.

Paki’s eyes focused back on the present. The young doctor was still talking to him. The diagnosis was good. Great advances in medicine. Blah, blah, blah.

It seemed like an eternity, but it must have been only a half-hour later that he was back home again. Emily was out, so Paki had a moment of quiet to finally gather his thoughts. He filled a cup with hot water and popped in a teabag, adding honey and lemon to his Rooibos tea. Sitting at the kitchen table in the weak afternoon light, the strong flavor of the tea soothed his mouth, flowing down his throat like a benediction.

He thought about how much medicine had changed since his mother’s illness. Once he would have taken the doctor’s explanation of this modern cancer treatment as a joke. But he supposed the immersive robotic treatment the doctor had pitched to him as the latest and greatest self-controlled cure was like the mental equivalent of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Paki was no stranger to video games. Although he hadn’t played much when he was younger, he had plenty of opportunity after his father moved them from Pretoria to the United States a year after his mother's death. He quickly picked up the strategies of the latest games played by his friends in school, and he became a real pro during his teenage years. He and his friends would sit around on the shag-carpeted floor, controllers in hand, and shoot virtual bullets into virtual heads, laughing.

His first wife had been a gamer, too. When they were dating, they'd spend lazy Sundays with her feet in his lap, their hands held out in front of them in rigor mortis, only their thumbs dancing like fairies. But while video games had drawn them together, it was also sort of what tore them apart. With kids, bills, work and stress, there was never enough time in a marriage to waste it on hobbies or games. Those idyllic days faded away until they disappeared the same way their love had, getting thinner and thinner, just starved right out of existence.

So long ago! Games had changed — he'd kept up over the years, even beat his son a time or two at the latest and greatest. Each victory was sweeter than the last, especially during the teen years of slamming doors and cell phone faces — where you'd see the back of the kid's cell phone more often than his face. When Paki was a teenager, he'd turned the music up loud to annoy his father and stepmother. His teenage kids just popped in their earbuds and ignored him. At least, it was a lot quieter form of rebellion.

Then his kids had kids, and he was a grandfather. How had that happened? While the face in the mirror showed deep lines across his forehead and more than a slight peppering of white in his hair, there was always something new to take away the aches and pains of getting older. Medicine had become easy, just when he needed it. Pop a pill, fix a chill.

And now this.

"What did they say?"

Emily's voice startled him. He glanced at the clock on the wall, realized it was past six. The inside lights had come up on their own when the sun had dipped towards the horizon, but he had been staring at the blank wall for so long he hadn't even noticed. "On," his second wife told the wall. The beige surface exploded into images, and Emily's eyes followed the news on the TV as she unpacked the grocery bags.

"Stage three cancer."

"Not so bad, then."

He laughed. Emily glanced at him, eyebrows raised. 

"Used to be a death sentence."

Her expression softened. She put down the bag of apples on the countertop and walked over to the table, taking his face between her hands. Leaning over, she gave him a gentle kiss. "I know."

He shook his head. "An old man's worries."

"Ha!" she said, returning to her groceries. "You're only as old as you feel."

He smiled. He didn't say: But I feel old, too.


The nurse looked as if she were the same age as his granddaughter. She had a pleasant voice — very soft and reassuring. "Now, this treatment isn't all-inclusive, so don't worry if you can’t hit all of them in one go. Most patients do several passes. We can schedule the additional sessions over the course of the next few weeks."

"Hmm…" he said. She glanced over at him, seemed to decide he had meant, "Yes."

"Okay, here we are." She pushed open the door, but nodded for him to go first. The small room was nearly bare — there was a comfortable-looking reclining chair and a wheeled table that held several items on top of a sterile white cloth. "Please have a seat, Mr. Matshaya, and we can get started.”

Always this “we,” he thought. She wouldn’t be doing anything. If the treatment failed, she wouldn’t be the one laid out on a slab.

He sat down as directed. The nurse picked up one of the four hypodermic needles, gave it a flick with her finger. She injected him quickly and efficiently, once in each arm at the bend of his elbow, once by each knee, then whisked the four spent needles into the biohazard trash. He thought the nanobots might hurt — that he would somehow feel different with tiny machines swarming through his body like an infestation of fleas. But he felt nothing.

Next, the nurse gave him each of the remaining components, showing him how to put them on. Facemask, check. Earbuds, check. Tech gloves, check. With a final once-over sweep of his body, she reclined the seat until he was a little shy of horizontal.

“When you reach a count of one minute with no interactions, or if you are having too many, press the button on the armrest,” he heard her disembodied voice.

Interactions. A good, medical-jargon way of saying it.

He strained his eyes against the blackness of the facemask. It looked like a motorcycle helmet from the outside, with a faceplate that could flip up and down, the main part strapped under his chin.

They had given him a choice of programs. He had selected a favorite from his teenage years, and when the familiar music began with the background sound of a splatter of bullets, he was almost transported back sixty-plus years, almost felt the new carpet of his teenage friend’s home under his elbows, the video game controller in his hands.

But, no — he was the controller now. His body was the game.

The program deposited him into an empty, blood-spattered room. In the distance, he could hear a savage growl, and he pumped his double-barreled shotgun with a quick chuck-chuck sound. He checked his ammo — low, but the nurse had reassured him that as the nanobots replicated in his system, the munitions would go up automatically.

He slunk around the corners of the room. When he got to the door opposite, he flicked out a hand and it slid open with a whoosh. A savage growl greeted him and an ugly face of dripping, yellowed teeth. His finger pulled the trigger before he even realized the danger, retreating quickly from the scurrying, snarling creature. The noise of the gun rang in his ears. Chuck-chuck, boom. Chuck-chuck, boom.

The creature fell with a final roar, and blood leaked across the floor. Paki checked his ammo. Despite using three shotgun shells, he found his stash of ammunition had doubled. He advanced into the corridor cautiously, listening for the telltale snarl of discovery.

Up ahead was a wider, open space. Sound crackled in his ears. “How are you doing, Mr. Matshaya?”

“Fine,” he replied curtly. Chuck-chuck.

He moved towards the room ahead, spinning around the corner and putting his back to the wall. Bug eyes turned towards him — here were a variety of beasties, not just the original lurkers. A vaguely pterodactyl-looking attacker swooped down from above, the gun blasted, and the monster fell neatly at his feet.

He spun around. Chuck-chuck, boom. Chuck-chuck, boom. Two more lurkers dropped.

“Blood pressure elevated,” he heard in a buzz at the back of his skull. “Heartbeat elevated. Mr. Matshaya, may I ask you to temporarily move back to the safe room?”

He could see another corridor branching off from the main hall. Stepping over a welter of bodies, he headed in that direction. The blood sang in his veins, and he laughed out loud. “In a minute,” he said.

What had he feared? He checked his ammo. Holding steady.

“Mr. Matshaya, I would ask —”

“In a minute!” he roared.

Growl.

Chuck-chuck.

Snarl.

Boom!


When he woke up, he wasn’t sure where he was. In a bed, of course. Crisp white sheets, several thin blankets. He didn’t have the energy to do more than turn his head, although he tried to sit up, he really did. But his arms and legs wouldn’t obey his commands, only stirred lightly and randomly like a newborn’s, not yet under his control.

There was a chair pulled up next to the bed — empty — and a half-filled cup on the nightstand. The overhead light was turned off, but the blinds were open, and a diffuse light poured in from outside. He couldn’t see anything out the window from the angle where he was lying, nothing except the clear, blue sky.

“You’re awake!” His neck creaked as he turned his head. Emily stood in the doorway, her purse slung over her shoulder and a bag of vending machine chips in her hand.

“What happened?” he croaked.

She gave him "the look" and walked around the bed. Dropping her bag of chips on the chair, she placed a wiry-thin hand under his head to tilt it up and held the cup to his lips. The water was tepid.

“You're an idiot,” she said, lowering his head to the pillow again even though he had barely moistened his lips.

“What?”

“The nanos did what they were supposed to. They attacked the cancer cells you pinpointed with the computer program. But you tried to make them do too much at once, and your body couldn’t take it. You nearly had a heart attack.”

“Hm.”

Emily rolled her eyes. “They caught it in time, thank goodness. It just means you have to spend a couple days here in the hospital, recovering. You got half the cancer out and nearly killed yourself in the process.”

Paki smiled at her, too relieved at the news to notice that she didn’t smile back, that her eyes were tense and red. “There’s no fool like an old fool,” he said in apology.

His wife leaned over to kiss his forehead, and she gently drew her fingers across his scalp in a slight caress. Her touch was soft and familiar, and he closed his eyes, trembling at the edge of memory.

He thought he heard, "My brave little Paki." But the voice — it was too low to be Emily's.

“Humph," said another voice, a louder one. This time, there was no mistaking his wife's tone. "At least you’re my old fool.”

And he knew, in that moment, that he was forgiven.


Text copyright © 2021 by Alison McBain. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.


About the Author: Alison McBain (website / Twitter) is an award-winning author with work in Flash Fiction Online, On Spec, and Abyss & Apex. Her debut novel The Rose Queen received the Gold Award for the YA fantasy category of the 2019 Literary Classics International Book Awards. She is lead editor for the small press publisher Fairfield Scribes, and associate editor for the literary magazine Scribes*MICRO*Fiction.