Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
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Service Call

by Linda Phillips

I waited on the front porch of the main house impatiently. It was a beautiful morning and there were many things more interesting to do, but as a very junior member of the family I had drawn the scut job of waiting on the Prism Channels repairman. Our internet and TV services were on the fritz, and even the Eldest among us were growing testy over the lack of access to the Really Dark Web, not to mention missing the TV exploits of a certain family of media mages. You know who I mean.

Folks often assume an enclave of the differently Talented (i.e., wizards, necromancers and the like) would have no need of a repairman, and to a certain extent this is true. Quotidian concerns such as plumbing issues or structural maintenance can be handled by dowsers or stone mages very effectively. Even old-fashioned over-the-air TV was amenable to the manipulations of a subset of the weather witches. But the technologies of internet and wireless streaming have grown so complex as to give birth to a sort of low level consciousness akin to a minor demon, one not readily placated by old incantations and rituals. Believe me, we have tried. Our best shaman had spent six hours attempting to fix this latest breakdown, shaking rattles, burning sage, and muttering invocations to no effect. Well, to the effect of producing a truly impressive volley of cursing (not Cursing, just the ordinary variety) and a wild spray of sparks flying randomly about the room, knocking pictures off the walls and setting magazines on fire. The internet modem just sat there unimpressed, blinking mockingly. Hence the service call.

So here I sat on the porch, rocking gently in my favorite chair and reading the paper. I had plenty of time to do a thorough job of it. Prism was evidently quite serious about its broad window of arrival time. I finished the crossword and was about to go grab lunch when the Prism Channels van pulled up.

A pleasant-looking young guy in coveralls got out and stepped up onto the porch. He had a tool kit in one hand and offered me the other for a handshake.

“Good afternoon, miss. I understand you are having some trouble with your internet connection?’

“Please, it’s Cassie. And yes, it is completely out. We tried rebooting and other—things, but nothing has helped.” I gave him my most ingratiating smile. “We are really happy to see you!”

He returned my smile. “Prism aims for 100% customer satisfaction. Let me see your indoor setup first.”

I showed him into the living room where the modem and its coven of cables sat underneath our big TV. I had a sudden lurching moment of panic. Right next to the TV stand was the fire drake terrarium. I had meant to put a cover over it. Too late now. The repairman, whose coverall pocket proclaimed to be “Freddie”, seemed to have a blessedly narrow focus and was bending to look at the connections. Heinrich the fire drake was a heap of golden coils in his cage. I prayed silently he would remain asleep and unnoticed.

Freddie, done with his preliminary inspection, was whistling to himself and turning to open his tool kit. Heinrich languidly blew a series of smoke rings. Perhaps this is what caught Freddie’s eye. All I know is that Freddie uttered a piercing shriek and executed a standing broad jump back into the kitchen that would have done an Olympian proud.

“What is that?” He gave me a look both wide-eyed and wild-eyed. “Is that a snake?”

“Of course,” I said. “It is a, um, golden python.”

“Something in its cage is on fire.” Freddie was backing farther into the kitchen.

“No, no,” I babbled, waving my hands in what I hoped was a reassuringly dismissive manner. “That is just, uh, an aeration system specially made to duplicate conditions in--”

“That is one big snake, I can’t work next to a snake.” It dawned on me that Freddie didn’t care if Heinrich was a supernatural creature or not, the key word was SNAKE.

“I could cover the cage.”

“I don’t think that would help.” Freddie looked over to the patio door leading to the backyard.

“Maybe I can look at the exterior connections.” He went to the door and grabbed the handle.

Oh no, I thought. Howard.

Freddie had just released the latch when our Hound leapt up against the sliding door, barking furiously.

“Don’t mind him, he’s really a pussycat. He barks like that at everybody,” I said lamely.

“Oh?” said Freddie. Howard stopped lunging at the door and crouched. His serpent-headed tongue shot out of his jaws and spewed venom all over the glass. “Does he do that at everybody, too?” Freddie was so pale his freckles looked drawn on with a pen.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think there is any way I can work here.” Freddie ran for the front door and was out on the porch before I could frame a reply.

“But, our internet! What are we supposed to do?” I chased him down the steps and out to his van. Freddie was in the driver’s seat and raising his window while I was still talking.

“I couldn’t say,” he said, and sped down the driveway, narrowly missing the gate posts.

“This is terrible customer service! I am not anywhere near 100% satisfied!” I shouted to Freddie’s dust cloud.

“That’s just great,” I muttered. I sat down on the porch steps. My elders would not be pleased that I had terrorized our repairman into fleeing. I was so used to our pets that I honestly had forgotten their likely effect on the uninitiated.

I was not wrong about the level of displeasure around the dinner table that evening.

“The guy said he needed an additional part to get everything up and running,” I prevaricated. It was hard to make myself heard over the clatter of ice pellets on my plate. Aunt Irma had conjured a personal hailstorm over my head as punishment for my part in making her miss Judge Judy again.

“I’m sure everything will be sorted out tomorrow.” I was fervently hoping this was true. I planned to throw myself on the mercy of Prism first thing in the morning.

I called them on my cell phone bright and early. I explained our service troubles in great and dramatic detail.

“The repairman you sent yesterday seemed to have some issues with our pets. I assure you, I will have them out of sight today,” I added.

“Hmm. Yes, I see the report,” the service rep said. “I’ll send Malcolm right over.”

“Fine,” I said to an already dead connection. “Malcolm.”

Astonishingly, Malcolm appeared only thirty minutes later. I answered his knock, full of self-justification. I had covered Heinrich’s terrarium and put Howard in the garden shed.

“Hi. We have a snake and a dog, but they are as secure as I can make them. We really need our computers and TV back, my folks are getting really impatient—”

Malcolm held up a hand. “I don’t care what you have. It’s not a problem.” He chuckled. “Freddie was really impressed, though.”

I drew a breath and took a good look at Malcolm. He was very cute, which was interesting. Even more interesting, I felt the slight buzz of recognition between my eyes that meant I was in the presence of another one of the Talented. I was gaping at him and processing this when he said, “And can I take a look at your setup?”

“Oh, yes, sorry.” I stood aside from the door. “There against the wall.”

Malcolm knelt by the TV stand and opened his case. He took out a long wand of carved ivory and gave the router a sharp rap with it, then consulted his tablet. “Oh yeah. Somebody’s wireless sprite has got an attitude.”

Malcolm turned the TV on. The yellow loading circle was frozen mid-screen and across the bottom the message NO INTERNET AVAILABLE CONTACT YOUR SERVICE PROVIDER was displayed. As Malcolm and I watched, the circle slowly morphed into a line drawing of a hand making a very rude gesture.

“Huh!” I snorted, annoyed at its insolence. “I guess now it will try to hurt my feelings by telling me I don’t deserve premium channels!” The letters on the screen faded out and were indeed replaced by a new message. YOU DESERVE TO DIE ALONE AND IN AGONY, it advised me, AND YOU HAVE BAD HAIR.

My hand flew up to my springy, unkempt curls. It was a point of some sensitivity.

“Don’t engage with it. It’s blustering because it knows it’s in trouble.” Malcolm turned the TV’s power off and reached back to disconnect one of the cables to the router. “I like your hair,” he added quietly. I was glad his back was turned so he couldn’t see the pleased blush creeping up my face.

Malcolm took the wand and inserted its tip into the empty port. A storm of pixels began whirling on the supposedly unpowered screen, somehow managing to convey outrage. The lights on the front of the router glared a furious red.

He began a long and (to me) mostly incomprehensible chant. St. Isidore of Seville was petitioned; bit rate speeds were implored to be swift. Beyond that, I couldn’t make a great deal of sense out of it.

After about twenty minutes of this, the pixels formed into the semblance of a petulant face. It stuck its tongue out at us and then vanished, leaving a suddenly dark and placid screen behind. The router lights turned green and stopped their hysterical strobing.

“Is it gone?” I asked hopefully.

“I believe that should do it,” Malcolm said. He removed the wand and reconnected the router cable. “The moment of truth.” He grinned and switched the TV on. I was never so relieved to see the Home Shopping Network. I was tired of my meals being meteorological events.

“I’m giving you a new wireless password, one that should seal your system against further intrusions.” Malcolm started packing up his gear.

“We are really so grateful for your help,” I said. “Do you have time for a cup of coffee?” I hesitated. “Could you explain how a wizard came to be working for Prism Channels?”

“Yes on both counts.” Malcolm smiled again. He really had a very nice smile.

Over our coffee, Malcom explained that he belonged to a new class of wizards that specialized in the manipulation of computer technologies. The cold reaches of the server farms had given rise to intricacies and entities that were fast becoming unmanageable by conventional means. Prism was bowing to the inevitable by employing the Talented. Malcolm thought IT wizards would soon take over the field completely.

I must admit, I found both Malcolm and his job fascinating. By the time he left, I had a head full of new ideas and a date for the weekend.

My family was happy of course to have their computers and TVs back in working order, but they were surprisingly uneasy on a couple of points. They didn’t like that something they regarded as a mere appliance could be filled with so much rebellion, and they didn’t like that it took an entirely new application of magic to squelch it.

“What’s next?” Aunt Irma huffed as she settled down to her afternoon shows. “Propitiating the refrigerator with a pork chop? Making a burnt offering to the oven?”

“It gets one every time Cassie cooks already,” my brother said from the sofa. He was opening up his laptop.

“You talk mighty big for someone who spent the last two days whimpering because he couldn’t play Elf Quest,” I said absently. I had more important things to think about. Sometimes, whether you have the Talent of prophecy or not, you get a glimpse of the future.


2017 Linda Phillips

Bio: L. H.Phillips lives in San Antonio with her family. She is a life-long fan of science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction.

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