Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
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Customer Service

by Annie Percik

"Magical Mysteries, Artefact Support. Abelard Abernathy speaking. How may I help you?"

"Yes. Hello." The man's tone was clipped and annoyed. "I'd like to report a malfunctioning cleaning artefact."

"What is the nature of the malfunction, sir?"

"It's not working!"

Abelard took a deep breath.

"Is the mana level low?"

"I only bought it yesterday. Shouldn't it just work?"

Abelard smiled to himself as he realised the most likely root of the problem. How many times did he have to deal with this kind of query on a daily basis?

"Have you fitted the artefact with an appropriate mana source, sir?"

"What do you take me for? Of course I have! I followed the instructions to connect the source unit. But it doesn't work!"

Abelard's amusement faded in the face of the caller's anger. He reminded himself that this might be the man's first artefact purchase and yet again made a mental note to ask the manual department to make the initialization instructions clearer.

"Did you take the source unit to a mana station and get it charged?"

"It's brand new! Why would I need to get it charged if it hasn't been used yet?"

The words rolled off Abelard's well-practized tongue.

"I'm afraid we cannot provide charged mana source units with new artefacts due to potential mana leakage during transport. All source units must be charged at a licensed mana station before initial insertion into the artefact. I'm sorry if this has caused you any inconvenience."

"Inconvenience? I've wasted a whole morning trying to get this blasted thing to work. And now I have to go out to a mana station to get it charged, all because you can't deliver it in a condition that's ready to use. It's ridiculous!"

"Again, I apologize for the inconvenience, sir," Abelard said calmly. "Do please get back in touch if you have any further problems."

The last few words were spoken to dead air. Abelard cut the connection and vented, "Stupid bloody customers!"

"Rough morning?" his colleague, Brian Weatherley, asked, rolling his chair backwards to bring himself into view.

Abelard answered the question with one of his own. "Why is it that artisans can't brief their salespeople to explain proper initialization procedures to customers when they buy their artefacts?"

"Because, Abelard, my lad," Brian replied with a wry smile, "that would make life far too easy for lowly support engineers like you and me. And you know how much time artisans spend thinking about other people."

Abelard sighed. "Do you ever wonder what it would be like if your spark was strong enough for you to be an artisan?"

"Only every day. I even have an artefact all planned -- the Weatherly Fix-E-Fact!"

"Oh yeah?" Abelard grinned at his friend's enthusiasm. "And what would that do?"

Brian gestured expansively at their dreary surroundings. The call centre was a vast open-plan office space, split into rows of desks where dozens of engineers sat, answering calls. The desks were separated into individual cubicles by tall grey partitions, so it wasn't very easy to interact with the other workers.

Brian explained, "It would answer all these calls and tell cusomers how to work their artefacts properly."

Abelard laughed. "But that would put us out of a job!"

Brian's eyes sparkled. "You maybe -- but I'd be an artisan, and I wouldn't care about lowly support engineers any more, would I?"

Still laughing, Abelard gave Brian a light punch on the shoulder.

"Oh, I see. No consideration for the little guy once you've made it to the top, is that it? Well, thanks a lot!"

Brian doffed an imaginary hat, then sobered as his Call-E-Fact beeped.

"Mana-Calls, Artefact Support, helping you to throw off your artefact chains. Brian Weatherley speaking. How may I help you?"

Abelard's last call of the day had a somewhat different flavor. His opening spiel was cut off part way through by a frantic female voice.

"Please! You have to help me! The Post-E-Fact attacked me and now it's trashing the post room!"

Abelard sat up straighter in his chair, intrigued.

"Can you tell me exactly what happened?"

"I don't know! I was trying to finish a mail out and it just went berserk! It threw the Frank-E-Fact at me and started firing envelopes and letters all over the floor."

"Can you see what it says on the interface crystal?"

"I'm not going anywhere near that thing," the woman stated firmly. "It's nearly killed me once already. I'm not going to give it an opportunity to try again and I'm alone in the office. Please, can't you come over and fix it yourself?"

Abelard looked at the clock. It was only ten minutes until the end of his shift and he could see on his display that the call was coming from the other side of town. Still, it wasn't every day that he got a call reporting a rogue artefact.

"I'll be there as soon as I can."


Eleanor Blake hadn't expected her work day to end with near death by Post-E-Fact. She waited anxiously for the engineer to arrive. After hasty introductions, she led him to the post room and pointed through the glass panel in the door with a trembling hand. She could still hear the artefact thrashing about and knew what Abelard would see when he looked inside.

The artefact was about five feet high and made up of a central unit with a series of trays down one side and several metal arms with grasping claws down the other. When Eleanor had fled the room earlier, the artefact had been grabbing piles of paper and envelopes from its internal drawers and flinging them all over the floor. It didn't sound as if it had calmed down since.

Abelard peered through the panel for a few moments, then turned to face her with an anxious expression.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but what did you do to it?"

"I told you, I don't know!" Eleanor cried. "All I asked it to do was put my letters in envelopes, seal them and label them. I thought that was what it was for."

"It is. Sometimes, though, artefacts can take on aspects of their artisan's personality. This one looks like a McPherson model, and they can be temperamental. Is there usually one person in particular who looks after it?"

"Actually, yes." Eleanor thought about George, the post room manager. She and the other admin staff were a little scared of him because he was so militant about never letting anyone near the artefacts. Now she knew why. "So it just took umbrage at something I said?"

"Most likely." Abelard gave her a sheepish grin. "Magic's not a precise art, you see, and powering things with mana can be unpredictable. That's what engineers are for -- to fix things when they go wrong." He turned back to the door. "Now, what's the best way to sort this out?"

Eleanor got the distinct impression he was no longer talking to her. The pitch of his voice dropped until she could no longer make out the words, though his gestures suggested he was presenting options to himself and then rejecting them one by one.

After a minute or two, Abelard sighed and muttered, "I think draining the power manually is the only thing for it."

Before Eleanor could do or say anything, he opened the door and stepped into the post room. As soon as the door closed behind him, Eleanor rushed forwards and pressed her face against the door panel, terrified of what she might see but unable to look away. She watched nervously as Abelard ducked beneath the flying paper and flailing arms of the rampaging artefact, gasping as it nearly clipped his shoulder. Within a few seconds, he was crouching next to the central unit, tracking the movement of the arms. As soon as a gap opened, he reached upwards, flipped open a panel and stuck his fingers directly into a glowing aperture in the artefact's side. The glow started to spread out from the aperture to envelop Abelard's hand. As it travelled up his arm, the artefact's movements gradually slowed and came to a halt.

Abelard rose to his feet and turned slowly back towards the door. Blue light shone out of his eyes and sparks crackled through his hair and between his outstretched fingers. As Eleanor watched, the light surged out from Abelard's hands and spiralled about the room, collecting up all the scattered bits of paper and machinery as it went and neatly stacking them back in their places until it looked as though nothing untoward had occurred in the room at all.

The blue glow leeched out of Abelard's body and dissolved into the air. As the last of it vanished, Abelard staggered sideways and sat down abruptly on the floor. Eleanor flung the door open and hurried to his side. Crouching down beside him, she placed a hand on his arm.

"Are you okay?"

Abelard raised his head to meet her concerned gaze, his expression dazed.

"Wow," he breathed. "What a rush!"

"That was amazing!" Eleanor said.

Abelard's eyes were wide. "It was, wasn't it?"

The stress of the situation dissipated as they both laughed. Then Eleanor's thoughts turned to its consequences. "My boss is going to kill me when he finds out about this. Who knew I could cause so much chaos just by saying the wrong thing?"

Abelard placed his hand over hers, which still rested on his arm.

"Don't worry," he said. "He doesn't have to know it was human error. Leave it to me."


The next day, an invoice came through from Mana-Calls for the service visit. When Eleanor saw what was entered as the description of the fault, she couldn't help but smile. She took the invoice straight through to her boss to sign off.

"Vocabulary calibration misalignment?" he queried, and Eleanor held her breath. "Sounds technical. Good job they had a decent engineer available."

"Yes," Eleanor agreed. "Yes it was."


2016 Annie Percik

Bio: Annie Percik is a University Complaints Officer, currently working in London, UK. Her fiction has recently appeared in The Lorelei Signal, and will also be published in two upcoming anthologies from Centum Press.

E-mail: Annie Percik

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