Analise's Grandma Rex

Annalise’s grandmother lies in a bed, tiny amidst green sheets, tubes and wires, and beeping machines. The stench of bodily fluids and bleach permeates the windowless ward. Grandma reaches a wizened hand through the side rails and clutches Annalise’s arm.

Get me out of here. I hate hospitals—” Grandma starts to cough.

Each hack reverberates through Annalise’s own chest. She waits for the episode to pass, pats the old woman’s hand and speaks gently, “These machines are keeping you alive, Grandma.”

I don’t care. I’m bored.”

On the other side of the stained blue curtain, an old man shouts and someone moans.

They are confined to the geriatric palliative ward. It’s tucked away in a beige-tiled subterranean level, where the dying won’t bother the younger patients in their private, sunny rooms.

On Annalise’s first visit two days earlier, an old geezer cackled and told a joke. “Close to the morgue—for convenience.”

That was the day after Annalise wrangled a week of unpaid leave from her job at the largest VR gaming corporation in the world.

Better hope your granny goes quick,” her Reality Tech boss said. “Time’s a crunching. Get some work done while you’re sitting around and don’t expect to take more days for a funeral.”

She gave the finger to his retreating back.

Her narrow skill-set involves building user-interfaces into the personality programs of the company’s proprietary line of life-size mechanical toys. The work crushes her soul, but the non-compete, non-disclosure clauses in her contract are iron-clad according to two different—and expensive—employment lawyers.

She’s trapped.

She glances at the bed. Grandma has fallen into a fitful sleep.

She notices the seniors have two things in common: insight gained over the decades and a resulting anger they actively repress in order to survive.

Her own anger bubbles. She should have paid more attention to Grandma these last years. Instead, she worked long hours of overtime, foregoing a personal life because she thought she could make a difference in the world. How naïve she’d been and look where it’s gotten her—forty-eight years old, no personal life to speak of, holding vigil at the deathbed of her last living relative.

Fretting about things she cannot change won’t get the work done. Annalise grabs her briefcase and pulls out an uplink, control panel and head-set. Regular network signals can’t penetrate the concrete basement, but Reality Tech’s satellite signal is almost full strength.

She enters VR and works for an hour, regularly checking on Grandma. A special order from the Far East has her boss’s knickers in a knot—life-sized and life-like dinosaurs for the tenth birthday of the child of a richer-than-Satan investor. The project is obscene when contrasted against the everyday reality of millions of people, like the impoverished seniors around her.

But even this level of care is only possible because Annalise signed an undertaking to pay medical costs exceeding Grandma’s limited health insurance.

What’s that you’re doing?”

Annalise startles. Eyes bright and alert, Grandma is awake.

Reality Tech’s development projects are top-secret. Annalise opens her mouth to deliver the standard response—a series of carefully constructed lies—but thinks twice. What’s the harm? Who will Grandma tell?

Annalise explains about the dinosaurs. The technology fascinates her even if she despises its application. She barely registers the snick of curtains being pulled back. Too late, she notices the entire ward is paying attention. Her heart jolts and stutters.

Grandma pats her hand. “Can I try?”

Of course.” Annalise swallows and looks around. “Please don’t tell anyone. I’ll lose my job.”

A blue-haired lady pipes up, “We won’t give away your secret, but it would be nice if we got a turn too.”

Murmurs and nods of assent from across the ward.

An old saying of her Grandma’s comes to mind. “In for a penny,” Annalise murmers.

Grandma smiles.

Annalise places the opaque goggles and headset on Grandma. “It links you into a mechanical toy. You can choose to do little things—drink water or lie down—but the program controls most of the experience. Don’t try anything wild or the test centre will notice.”

For the next two days, the seniors take turns inhabiting the dinosaurs. Annalise creates an app to enhance their experience. For the first time in a long time she’s excited about the work, and spends long hours fine-tuning the interface. She hides the new programming behind firewalls and messages the site staff to let them know she’s running a series of pre-operation tests.

It works. Annalise relaxes—no one will find out. She’s heard more laughter down here, seen more smiles, than she has in a long time. Some of the seniors even look younger.

Then, Mr. Gray in the third bed dies while inhabiting a triceratops. After Annalise retrieves the headset and goggles, she’s unable to establish contact with the dinosaur.

A moment of panic.

She should do a site visit to ensure the programming is working smoothly, but showing up at the company warehouse will signal to her boss that she’s returned to work.

Maybe I should stop.” Annalise buries her face in her hands. “I’m breaking so many rules they could do a lot worse than fire me.”

Grandma reassures her. “This is a wonderful gift, but we’ll understand if you can’t.”

Annalise blinks through tears. Grandma’s generous nature is one of the many things she loves about her. “It occurs to me that following the rules is part of my problem.”

Grandma smiles.

Betty, the woman with blue hair passes next, seizing up as she cackles with laughter. Five more follow. The nurses wander in, unfazed, and cart away the bodies. Apparently, the death rate is normal.

Annalise’s programming continues to glitch. She’s no longer trying to get the dinosaurs back on-line. Her boss will fire her if she doesn’t fix the problem. She’s not sure she wants to.

She clutches Grandma’s hand. “It’s my last day, but I want to stay with you.”

It’s okay, sweetie.” Grandma chuckles. “I could use one last ride in that magnificent T-Rex.”

Love and grief fill Annalise. She places the headset. A sob escapes her lips. Grandma is the last of the original group.

The machines shriek as Grandma’s eyes film over.

Annalise’s satellite phone rings. Her boss shouts, “Get back here now! The dinosaurs left the centre. It’s like they have minds of their own.”

Annalise grabs the headset, and sprints past an incoming orderly. Picking up a fire-extinguisher from next to the nurse’s station, she smashes the lock of the medicine cabinet and grabs a handful of bottles.

Even her dense boss will figure it out soon. Grandma and the other seniors need her. Crawling between two dumpsters in the alley, she conceals herself with cardboard boxes, and uplinks and partitions the satellite. It should take weeks—with luck, months—for Reality Tech programmers to break her code.

Her hands shake. She stuffs her mouth with pills and swallows.

It’s hard to recall specifics, but the seniors liked the bigger dinosaurs. She chooses a velociraptor. Something fast to catch up with them.

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