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Like a Fly Caught in a Web -or- To Catch Mice

by Helmuth W. Mommers

 

“Could it really be…” was my first incredulous thought at the sight of the park in which the grandiose four-storied Villa stood, hidden amongst dense shrubs and the foliage of what seemed like hundred-year old trees. Amazed, I crossed the crunchy gravel path, surrounded by hedges, flowerbeds and lawns, spellbound by the formidable entrance with its green patina-covered copper roof jutting out over a pair of pillars.

I felt transported back in time by two hundred years, not in the here and now, our year 2086 – a time when we should be happy if we didn’t live in containers.

What did the salesman announce so proudly?

“A small paradise from bygone days, but with all the latest comforts and technology.”

Though the house was inhabited, not a living soul could be seen, which was nothing more than I’d expected from this soulless city. At any rate, the air was filled with the chirping of insects, the twitter of birds, the rustling of leaves, the stirring of the wind, and impregnated with the scents of early autumn – a perfect illusion of a wholesome world.

Now I stood before the door with the empty name display, second story, on the left, as advertised. My future home? With my fingertip on the sensor, I hesitated. I was almost tempted to turn away. How foolish of me to think that this offer could be for real. Surely someone was taking me for a ride, or there was some other catch to it…

But it was too late to turn back. Why did I have to tell Gloria about this? Half the night we’d been nestled tightly against each other, lying awake in our tiny hovel, and picturing what it would be like having a room for the three of us, even if it was just the two of us at first.

I pressed my index finger against the sensor.

The spyglass in the door slid open to reveal a pea-sized eye peering out at me. I knew at that moment multiple scans were being made of me and bundled up as data packages for future reference.

“Your name, number and purpose?” grumbled a loudspeaker. Before I could reply, the electronic voice continued. “This is the automatic security system Watchdog, by SAFEGUARD Micro Systems. We would like to draw your attention to the fact that your fingerprint, retinal scan and voice pattern have been stored, and are being compared with our databank. Speak now.”

I was a bit shocked, because the estate agent had already grilled me in the run-up to my visit; all that was missing was for him to demand my shoe-size and sexual behavior. But still, did I have a choice? In the ominous silence my voice croaked like a hungry crow’s.

“Thank you, Mr. Hans-Jürgen Braun-Eder. It is our pleasure to acquaint you with our products.” A presentation followed on burglarproof doors, reinforced windows, shatter sensors, photoelectric barriers, infrared-motion detectors and computer-supported cameras with face-recognition and complete analysis options. All of it by SMS, of course, the ultimate in security systems, at very reasonable monthly rates. There was no chance of interrupting the flow of words. I let them wash over me with stoic calm, knowing that I stood on the verge of a new future. I thought of Gloria and our heart’s desire.

When the door finally swung open, I was greeted with delight. “Ah, there you are, Mr. Hans-Jürgen Braun-Eder. I’m so pleased to see you.” The estate agent smiled his most heartfelt smile, as though he’d been pining after me. “Come on in, this way.” One hand behind his back, he bowed, then, with his right hand, he grabbed mine and shook it effusively. He only let go when I was inside and the world outside. The door had closed by itself as though guided by ghostly hands.

“A little surprise for you,” he announced. Without delay his hand shot out from behind his back and held a bottle of Dom Pérignon under my nose. “A welcome drink.”

Overcome, I stuttered, “But… but I’m yet to see the apartment.”

He waved me away, “Fiddlesticks!” and busied himself with opening the bottle. The cork cracked realistically, but didn’t leave a trace on the hallway ceiling. In no time my philanthropic agent had conjured up two long-stemmed glasses that were soon filled with sparkling Champagne. “So, what do you think?”

It bubbled exquisitely over my tongue and gums, rolled deliciously down my throat.

“A 2078. A truly noble drop.” His praise gushed over the product. “I still have some stock remaining, eight bottles. At a special price.” He beamed like Father Christmas. “Only four thousand Euro. There is the option of installments…”

Did he think I was made of money? He read the answer in my expression. I was only twenty-three and not moneyed.

“Or a subscription?” he coaxed. “A glass at two-fifty Euro, or a hundred and twenty a month for as much as you want? Terminable five days before expiry of the contract.”

The two-fifty didn’t sound bad for a small virtual celebration; at that price I could even have a small house-warming party. I gulped twice then said, “Let’s talk about it later, when we have something to celebrate.”

“Smoker?” he asked suddenly.

“Why? Is it forbidden?”

“Nonsense.” Beaming, he shook his head. “Here, have one.” He handed me a packet of Live Extralong. “You should try it, brand new – maximum taste and no harmful side-effects.” He blew artful smoke-rings into the air, and puffed away like a steam train. “See that?” said the agent, looking at the ventilation grille. “Blows it all away in a flash. Now that’s what you call air-circulation! Honeywell’s the brand.”

His chest swelled with pride. I, on the other hand, coughed. “I’m actually a non-smoker.” I exclaimed.

“Ah, what hasn’t yet come to be can always happen. Take me for example…” and he commenced talking about his wretched past as a non-smoker, how he was converted by a self-sacrificing representative of Tobacco & Drugs Inc. and finally discovered his true self, the quintessence of the meaning of life, experienced real enlightenment – and so on and so forth. They were the usual slogans that finally piqued with the admission that not only did smoking make life worth living, but thanks to all the vitamins and trace elements it was healthy too!

I almost felt ungrateful when I politely but firmly refused his offer of a month’s ration.

Finally the agent gathered himself to begin with our viewing of the apartment. Arriving in the kitchen/dining room immediately left of the hallway, my eloquent agent chattered on about the manifold technical refinements of the kitchen fitments – not without demonstrating how efficiently each and every device operated, and naming its maker, its brand and price, whether on purchase or when leasing. He also specifically pointed out to me that the gadgets were also networked, maintaining a life of their own, so to speak, like ants in a hill, directed by a queen: in our case, the apartment’s central computer, which existed to serve only the well-being of its master (at this the estate agent bowed deeply and gallantly swept an imaginary hat in front of me). All the while I softly shook my head, mumbling something along the lines of, “I don’t understand any of it; my partner manages all that. I’ll tell her to get acquainted with the manual.” I weighed him up. “You do have a manual, don’t you?”

I didn’t expect that he could be astounded; but on the other hand his kind were known for their extraordinary abilities, even their aptitude for drama, most likely courtesy of Time Warner, Division of Warner Bros Studios.

“Manual?” He acted dumbfounded. “But of course! What were you thinking?” And in abbreviated form he began to recount the advantages of the system, its software, compatibility and upgrading potential.

Slowly I began to feel defeat.

I forced my way past him into the corridor, not without hearing his loud protests, which overwhelmed me with further rhetorical hardships about all sorts of cleaning and maintenance equipment that could be found in the adjoining service room.

“Save it for my wife; she’s responsible for the technology,” I said.

“You’re wife?” His steel grip pulled me away from the door, which I had wanted to open. “You’re married?”

“No,” I corrected myself, “but in a long-term relationship.”

“That’s good. That’s very good.” He steered me down the corridor towards the boudoir as he leeringly called it. “Then I have just the thing for you.”

***

Enticing music suddenly materialized in the air; it grew louder as the door swung open of its own volition. “I love you babe, I love you tender…” wailed a singer, before there was a half-choked, “…won’t you stay with me tonight?”

I swallowed dryly when I saw what was stretched out over the king-size bed writhing in the silken folds like coils of snakes. It was a redhead in black lingerie, which could barely tame her voluptuous curves. She moistened her lips with a pink tongue, her one long leg slipping and sliding over the other like snakes ready to strike, and flicked a crooked finger at me, indicating I should accept her open invitation.

Blood shot up my cheeks, all the way to the tips of my ears. Before I could be sucked in by her, I turned away.

The door was locked; of the estate agent there wasn’t a trace. He must’ve have withdrawn discreetly.

“Well, come on, honey, don’t be so shy,” she beckoned me. It felt as if electronic feelers were probing my inner being to a molecular level. Then she smiled. “Or would you rather have something young and nubile?” Instantly she was transformed into a fresh Lolita with a tight stomach and pointed breasts. It was a though she knew Gloria.

“Any preference with regards to hair color?” she added. In quick succession her hair color changed, then the cut, followed by its volume. “Anything your heart desires…” she announced in a sing-song voice, supported by lascivious movements with her hands over her breasts, waistline and thighs. “Safer Sex offers full-house service. Safer Sex is best. Safer Sex… all the time.”

She opened mouth and legs, and stretched out her arms towards me. I took an involuntary step towards her, as though hypnotized, my head suddenly filled with hot air.

“Twenty bucks a pop. A hundred and fifty for a monthly subscription. Round the clock. No restrictions.” She grabbed her labia and showed me just how big a man I could be for her.

That was the decisive factor. Somehow I managed to dive for the door in the middle of a rising erection. I almost stumbled over the baffled estate agent when I stormed past him in the direction of the exit. There I unexpectedly bounced off a solid wall, which drove the air out of me like a faulty balloon. Ffft, a sound escaped my lips, and I thought I might float off into another realm.

But a kindly soul had already helped me up: my agent, purring conciliatorily. “A bit of experience has never hurt anyone… and at the end of the day wouldn’t you at least like to try?”

The guy probably got commission! Which of course did not mean him – he was just a tool – but the landlord or the firm to which the marketing had been entrusted.

I could see what kind of trap I’d fallen into – me along with possibly hundreds of other hopeful tenants. “Spam!” I vociferated silently. There was only one thing to do: get out!

“This is all bullshit!” I roared. “I’ll complain. I’ll report you to the Webmaster. Or go to the cyberpolice.”

“There’s not need for that,” soothed the virtual grifter. He grinned blatantly. “The viewing is of your own free will, nobody forced you to do it. The conditions were explicit. Ever heard of fine print?”

Though I didn’t know what he meant by it, I didn’t doubt that it was yet another outrage. I felt like a trapped mouse, lured on by a morsel of bacon. The trap was this link: an apartment with all the trimmings, in an impressive location, at an idiotically low lease. No, not the lease – I was idiotic.

“If I may?” My friendly estate agent beckoned me towards the bedroom. “Let’s get it behind us, then we can go on with the other rooms.”

“And what if I don’t want to? If I want to see the other room now?” My hand rested on the door immediately to the right of the entrance. I looked at him questioningly. “The children’s room?”

“If you please. All roads lead to Rome.”

Whatever could that mean?

It became clear to me when I opened the door. “Oh be my man, oh be my joy. I’ll give you all that you want, and still some more…” the throaty voice of a dark-skinned beauty received me. She was dressed in the merest whisper of a white negligee, through which pressed the large dark nipples of her spherical breasts and, when her hips began to sway seductively, her shapely buttocks, too. It was the same bedroom, the same interior, just different bait. When the chocolate girl started to lift her negligee to show me the full splendor of her body, I saw the logo Exotic Erotic emblazoned on a stomach, which she now began to circle like a belly dancer.

Looking for help, I turned around expecting both the door and my seller of souls to have disappeared, but I was mistaken.

“You don’t have to consume the product,” he advised me with a wink, “but you could at least sample it. Doesn’t cost anything.” And when my hand again reached for the door, he added, “Otherwise the next pop-up appears… ah, the next pin-up, I mean.”

A Spam trap, like I’d suspected. I though of Gloria and of what she’d say if she ever found out about this. There wasn’t any chance of getting out of this, at least not via the usual route – closing the scene and surfing onwards – on this stage of web-illusions. My only option was the brute force of Interruptus, the consequences of which were well known: Personal System Crash. I wouldn’t be the first to walk around with partial amnesia, or worse, as though lobotomized.

While I weighed her alluring apples in my hands, the black-haired beauty’s sensuous sweet aroma became trapped in my throat as she whispered suggestive remarks about tariffs. My hormonal levels rose unwillingly and culminated in a painful erection. The succubus immediately grabbed at the traitorous bulge in my pants and pulled me onto the bed.

Courageously, I withstood the temptation of being led into an exotic world of Caribbean love at the modest fee of twenty Euro. Not that I wouldn’t have been able to come up with an apology, if I had to.

When I freed myself from her clutches with mild force, she still shot me a yearning, “come visit me sometime, Exotic Erotic. Handy and horny. Exotic Erotic.“ At that she rolled her eyes and flicked her tongue provocatively.

“Well, then,” said my guide, “wasn’t that bad was it?” He directed me out the door into the corridor, then turned on his heel so that we were facing the same door as before.

“Children’s room?” I asked again. I’d already lost all hope that this apartment was actually available, but I also realized that I would have to endure this trial, every step of the way.

“Yes, even if it’s used as a games room till then…” But not sex games, I thought apprehensively.

The door swung open.

Muted voices welcomed me, along with the clacking of chips and the whirring of a circling ivory ball before it eventually clattered into a numbered slot.

“Twelve. Rouge.” The croupier began scooping in lost bets.

A black-and-white dressed penguin bowed to me and pressed a chip into the hand which I’d stretched out in greeting. “With compliments from the house. Casino Royale. By CR Master Games.” The way he presented his pitch I could actually hear the cursive in his voice. “Good luck, sir.”

Was he smiling roguishly?

Of course I won twice in a row, even when I only played a single color. It was a mistake, perhaps, when a transversale, a carré or a twelve-number might’ve made more sense. But it was as they say: in the beginning lure a fly to the web, and only later let it squirm.

The provocatively dressed girl with the triple A logo for ‘Anytime, Anywhere, Anything’ on her forehead served me my second complimentary drink called Fligh High, which indeed let me think that I was floating on clouds. However, before I could become careless and in my exuberance spread half of my chips all over the playing field, my credit dispenser, which I’d placed on the table in front of me to cover my stakes, reminded me that high flying was usually followed by a long fall that surely wasn’t covered by the house’s special offer.

I pushed back my chair and excused myself with a curt nod in the middle of the next round. So much for politeness, even if I didn’t have much cause for it. My losses I would get over, and in hindsight they were justified by my short-lived amusement. In any case, that’s how I would argue it with Gloria.

***

Before I stepped out of the ‘children’s room’, I let my gaze wander over the walls and windows, to give an account to Gloria later. If one forgot the roulette table and the people, it actually was a very spacious room for a child’s playroom. It would even suffice for more than one kid.

My estate agent must’ve interpreted my glance correctly. “Is the lady already pregnant?” he asked indiscreetly. On the shaking of my head: “But she’s broody, right? Hoping for a few little devils, are we?”

This time I stared at him angrily; he must’ve possessed a damn good software routine to react to my indignation: “Oh, I beg your pardon, I didn’t want to offend you. The love of children is natural, isn’t it? Whether little angel or devils… doesn’t make a difference, does it?” He returned my gaze disarmingly.

“Could we…?” I countered, with a step towards the connecting door.

“Of course we can. We can do anything. And regarding your hope for kids, we have just the thing. You could call it a bridge… until your firstborn arrives.”

What he meant by that came running towards me from the adjoining room with a loud “Daddy, Daddy!” It was a red-haired boy (my hair color!) barely reaching up to my knee, whose runny nose I instinctively wiped before realizing the absurdity of the situation.

“At this age they are the cutest,” commented my stirring agent. “Affectionate, easy to care for, undemanding. But on a wish they can also turn into a gurgling bundle against mother’s breast. At a minimal cost: the basic model from General Robotics Ltd. starts at fourteen thousand, a yearly upgrade at two thousand. For that, maintenance is minimal – not worth mentioning. Ten-year guarantee with free yearly servicing, for up to six thousand operating hours.” He evidently wanted approval. “So? Is that an offer, or what?”

“Well, I’m not sure…”

“Oh yes you are, you know that it’s a lot cheaper than a real one. And replaceable at that.”

I wondered what he meant by ‘replaceable’, but preferred not to know. I could still be convinced with a mechanical pet, but a child?

My silent shaking of the head provoked a new sales attack. “Then at least a pet.” He pointed at a white cat, which appeared like snowflakes freshly fallen from the sky. “It’s the ideal playmate for the child. A legwarmer for mom and dad. And it’s guaranteed not to have claws. House-trained is a given.” Again I looked at him questioningly. “No? You don’t want a Robocat? What about a dog? Robodog… General Robotics Ltd. stocks the most popular breeds. Would you like a little demonstration?”

Would I get rid of him, if I went on turning him down? I could already see him pull a great dane from a hat with the argument that I’d save on the security system, or a longhaired dachshund, which would sweep the floor – another saving!

“Maybe rather a budgie…” I said at a loss for words.

“Ha! That’s it! Good choice.” He snapped his fingers. “What’s your favorite melody?”

I’d hardly answered him before a colorful bird began warbling away. “It’s got a massive repertoire, and can be upgraded.”

“What does it cost?” Pure desperation forced me to ask. He closed his litany of information with the remark: “I’ll pass on your query to General Robotics Ltd., they can then offer you the full program.” He was already beaming with the prospects of his commission.

I did him the favor of nodding approvingly.

“This is the living room – what am I saying, the lounge!”

The room was impressive, at least fifty, if not more, square meters large, so high that I had to stretch my hand towards the ceiling to touch the chandelier. It was well decorated with real wood and upholstered furniture, and even had a fireplace in which crackled a fire. “Is it real?” I asked.

“What are you thinking?” My agent threw up dismissive hands. “Do you maybe want to burn up the few remaining trees? But,” he went on, “it comes with full holo-graphics. Image, sound, smell, temperature. Everything from Panasonic, from the product line Simili Gadgets.” He laughed ecstatically. “Everything from wax candles to fireworks and machine guns… of course, those are just to play with,” he quickly added before I could object. “Notwithstanding, it’s downright unpleasant getting hit by one…”

In my minds eye I could see children blazing away in every direction. Brave new world. And into it I’m supposed to bring my own? Maybe it wasn’t so absurd after all to consider General Robotics­ Ltd…. but Gloria would never allow it.

“Talking about the technology,” continued the estate agent, “not only are all the rooms fully networked, they also exist fully inside the Net.” He gesticulated with one arm. “You can jack in anywhere without the usual tedium. The apartment is also completely equipped with senders and receivers, has a massive data-highway, and round-the-clock web access through AOL. It’s all an integrated aspect of the rental agreement. But you know, of course, that the flat rate isn’t more than twenty-five percent of an average monthly income – so what will it be?”

Indeed, what will it be? It’s a shame. I saw my chances dwindling, in that it seemed I didn’t have any, ever had any.

I cleared my throat. “You do have holovision, don’t you? Not just this outdated television.” I pointed at the flat screen set in one wall.

“Oh, that. It’s just for decoration. It can simulate any films, the wild ones by Electric Eccentric or even the old classics by Classic Dead Artists. Interested?”

“Mhm. Less.”

“Then it’s holovision, also by Panasonic. Your provider of Real Fakes, if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t. Was I supposed to know all these absurd-sounding products?

“You know, the real candles that don’t really burn; a full breast that doesn’t weigh anything. Sweet temptations which don’t fatten, and ratatatat, guns that never kill.”

“Ah,” was my reply.

The agent snapped his fingers like a magician conjuring up an elephant.

An entire section of the living room transformed itself into a stage, not much different to one in reality in this virtual room. In quick succession he flipped through programs, talk shows changed into ghostly casts, moderators, bands, political debates, demonstrations, theatres of war – and ads, to the ratio of one in three. It was the familiar chaos in the comfort of your own home, which my generation grew up in.

“Over three hundred free channels. And a few dozen pay-for-view channels, interactive and without advertising.” He smiled disarmingly. “Not as effective as cyberspace, but better suited for the kids, and grandma and granddad, in case they come visit….”

I thought of my and Gloria’s grandparents living in the reserves, where we visited them every few months on special occasions, and doubted whether they would ever dare enter this technological madness.

“Then there’s the bathroom,” the agent directed me to the next door.

“Let’s leave it,” I resigned myself, “I’ll believe you; I’m sure it’s the best of the best, with all the amenities.”

“Oh yes!” The agent’s face beamed like a miniature sun. “Sauna, Jacuzzi, massages, automated cleaning with disinfectants and aromatic jets. Feel like a test run?”

“Thank you, but I’ve already showered.” I felt exhausted.

“Let’s have a seat, then,” suggested the agent-avatar and pointed me towards the armchairs in front of the fireplace. “Coffee? Tea?”

I chose the virtual tea with an original Ceylon taste. Out of thin air materialized an elderly gentleman, who served the tea in a dainty porcelain cup with a petite silver spoon. “Sugar, Sir? Milk?”

“A Robobutler,” explained the estate agent. “Very practical. Easily within ones means. Not much more expensive than a child…ah, a Robochild.” When he saw my expression, he seemed inclined to make a personal comment. “You surely don’t want to leave everything to your future wife, do you?” Then, irritated, “The butler is also available in a female finish – as an all-in-one girl, young and fresh and up for anything. You’ve seen our Triple A model?” He licked his lips meaningfully. “Wife doesn’t have to be the housewife, and it’s cheaper….”

He seemed to have arrived at the end of his sales-litany, because he conjured up a pile of papers, which he spread out over the table. “Let’s have a look, then.”

I could already see I’d have to dig deep into my pockets. Sales and lease contracts, options, pattern and design orders. A cold shudder ran up my back when I thought of how I would talk my way out of this. Instinctively, I leaned forward and held out my hands to the fire for warmth. He immediately grabbed my hand and pulled me back. “Wait! You’ll still feel the burn blisters when you’re outside.”

“But isn’t that dangerous… for kids?”

“It’s got a child safety feature. You just need to activate it.”

“But why’s that necessary in cyberspace?”

The agent-avatar held out his hands. “It’s supposed to be as real as possible, isn’t it?”

“Does that mean the apartment really exists, actually looks like this? In this house, in this park? At this rent?” My doubt seemed written in fat letters in my expression.

Now he looked insulted. “But of course; what do you take me for, sir?”

“And I can really get this apartment?” A silver lining appeared on the horizon of my fantasies.

“Theoretically, yes. But we have a lot of applicants…”

Aha, here came the hook!

“What do I need to do to get the place?”

“Well,” He rubbed his hands together. “Now you know our offer – all the nice products and services…”

“Yes?” The bright horizon was beginning to dim again.

“The apartment goes to the party that closes the most contracts. You know what they say, waste not want not. With us the customer is always king, and king is the customer that consumes.“

Now that horizon appeared torn up by sheet lightning. Every bolt corresponded to a spontaneous idea of how I could, mustering all my will, make it afford – but no; following each and every idea was the rolling thunder of realization that I could never make it work, and I’d shrink into nothingness.

“Well, if it’s a financial problem…” the real estate agent, who now seemed to have grown two little horns, nodded understandingly, “then we have long-term credit options on offer with reasonable conditions, including the relevant risk of death insurance, which our parent company Happy Life Forever covers. Otherwise, someone else could stand surety for you, perhaps your parents, if they have an amassed fortune or are still gainfully employed…”

The horizon turned black.

“Come on, let me help you up.” The devil himself helped me to my feet, fearing that I might feint. He accompanied me to the apartment door. “You’ll find your way home all right?”

I could only nod.

“Here,” he pulled out a pamphlet from his jacket pocket. “This is for you. With compliments.” He patted me amiably on the shoulder. “See you.”

Politely, I tucked in the pamphlet and jumped.

***

Back out of cyberspace in my real twenty-four-square-meter living-dining-one-bedroom apartment, I collapsed in my chair. Gloria had to pull the cable out of the base of my skull.

“And? How was it?” She asked me, hopeful and concerned at the same time.

“It was nothing,” I finally stammered. “Just a Spam-trap.”

Farewell illusions! We would be satisfied with our little hovel, today, tomorrow and for a good while still. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s this: Never again will I surf the Web without a pop-up-stopper!

Then I remembered. I grabbed for the pamphlet in my pocket. To late: it had just been a virtual handout.

“Looking for something?” Gloria waved a printout in front of me.

CONGRATULATIONS! It said. YOU ARE OUR ONE-IN-A-MILLION LUCKY WINNER. And in fine print below: Collect your prize by filling in this form. I didn’t have to read any further; I now knew what fine print meant.

 

Translated by Richard Kunzmann

Copyright  © 2011 by Helmuth W. Mommers

 

Helmuth W. Mommers, born 1943 in Vienna, was as writer, illustrator, translator, literary agent and anthology editor one of the first allrounders of the sf scene and one of the pioneers of science fiction in Austria and Germany. After a career of businessman he celebrated his comeback into science fiction in 2002 and has been, as co-founder of Nova, as editor of the Visionen anthology series and as writer and mentor, enormously influential on contemporary sf story writing in Germany, for which he received the Kurd Laßwitz Preis in 2008. He is currently in the process of moving back to his home town Vienna and to build up a new specialized science fiction library.

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