Clerk of the Night – Origins
The night the sun set on the east coast of the United States, numerous heroes with amazing powers were having amazing adventures. Marin the demon summoner was destroying the nice boat Seaking. Jason the blogger was fighting monsters in another dimension with angelic golf clubs. Flak the rhetoric mage was watching girl cartoons.
But this is not a story of heroes.
It is a
The wind pulls into the station before the train. Horns blow long and hard as the final street crossing is passed. The noise of machinery crescendoes and then vanishes. Passengers embark and disembark. Amtrak has arrived.
No more details are necessary, because we don’t care about this particular train. Neither does Joe. Whether he cares about trains in general is unclear, but one thing is certain: trains care about him. He helps keep them running, after all.
The Amtrak mechanical clerk sat in a dark office in Queens two hours after his shift had ended. His colleagues had left for the day, all save for his direct supervisor, Sam.
Sam had asked him to stay late, but hadn’t made the reason clear yet. Joe had no reason to seek his supervisor out; if Sam wanted something, he could contact Joe. Having no objections to easy overtime, Joe waited listless at his keyboard. His thoughts lingered on Rarity, the best pony, then on the upcoming elections and the dearth of actual Christians in the running (Santorum was a fraud). He was startled out of his reverie when Sam tapped him on the shoulder. The bearded man’s glasses reflected light from Joe’s computer monitor. The rest of him was shrouded in darkness. Black jeans, black hoodie.
“Let’s talk over dinner. I know a place.”
Joe nodded and stood.
“Come quickly,” said Sam.
Joe noted the urgency, but he wasn’t one for speed.
“Should I leave my computer—”
Sam strode off. Before Joe could leave the office for the night, he had to unplug his keyboard—a private possession he brought to work each day—and pack it. He didn’t trust the morally bankrupt atheist building janitors not to nab it. Hardware in backpack, he hurried to catch up with his supervisor. He managed to regain his breath in the elevator, but as soon as they hit the ground floor he found himself struggling once more.
“Slow down, man.”
Joe’s supervisor paid his request no heed, jogging down the steps into the nearest metro station with his hands in his hoodie pockets. Joe leaned heavily on the railing as he followed at a saunter.
Joe followed Sam through the turnstile and onto an unfamiliar line.
As the train pulled away from the station, Joe noticed two things: he and Sam were the only ones in their car, and there was screaming coming from the platform. When he turned to look back, all he saw through the car’s windows was blackness.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m protecting you,” replied Sam. “And the subway is the only place I have any power to do so.” His words came out slowly, like molasses, or like carefully-picked words.
“You’re not making sense,” said Joe.
Sam fell silent.
Joe tapped his foot mentally, still gripping a handle for stability and gasping for air.
“I’m going to teleport you to the San Francisco Bay Area,” said Sam after what felt like minutes. “Get off the train at Downtown Berkeley. You’ll meet a man who calls himself the BM. He’s better at explanations.”
“I bet he is,” laughed Joe, “and so I hope he’s in the next car, or something, and not across the freakin’ country. Teleport?” He burst out laughing.
Sam knelt and traced a circle in the metro car grime with his index finger.
BARTsnake, heed my call!
Joe felt nothing, none of the jolting or shunting he would have expected from his long career in Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, his surroundings simply changed. Sam was gone and the dark gray floor was replaced with a gray floor flecked with blue. Mad Men adverts disappeared, in their place Giants baseball posters. Hard orange benches gave way to upholstered blue, and the route map on the car wall was simplified from dozens of lines to five. Place names Joe was unfamiliar with dotted the map. Richmond, El Cerrito Plaza, Orinda, Lafayette. Berkeley.
“Downtown Berkeley, Richmond line.”
The doors opened onto a concrete-and-red-brick platform. Joe stepped out of the train. A voice on a loudspeaker was saying something about keeping “BART” safe and secure. Joe, having always had a healthy imagination, decided to accept the evidence. He’d been teleported. He’d stepped onto a New York subway train and off of a Bay Area Rapid Transit train.
This was ridiculously cool.
Joe trotted upstairs, ready to meet this BM guy, but found a turnstile blocking his exit. He quickly ascertained that the turnstile required a BART ticket, and that he had not magically acquired one. He walked over to the Add Fare machine and paid his way out of the conspicuously empty subway station.
As Joe ascended the mighty escalator in the central cylinder of the downtown Berkeley BART station, he noticed that he could see very little beyond the windows. His watch read 7:30, so it could be no later than 4:30 p.m. on the West Coast, yet it was pitch black outside.
At the top of the escalator, Joe encountered the shadow of a man. Dim outlines of buildings, vehicles, and figures were visible in the darkness, barely illuminated by some unseen lightsource. This was no normal nightfall, he knew. It was as if someone had taken the world in Photoshop and decreased the brightness. The man clicked his flashlight on, illuminating a mere couple feet of area around Joe.
“You’re the night clerk?”
“Was,” corrected Joe. “I was recently moved to daytime shifts.”
A firm hand grabbed Joe’s.
“People call me the BM,” said the man. “Walk with me.”
“Can I ask what’s going on?”
“Am I really in Berkeley?”
“Indeed. Spambot sent you here, right?”
“I suppose he did.” Joe blinked at the nickname. His colleagues referred to Sam as a spambot due to the man’s broken keyboard and eccentric e-mail behavior. “Did you work at Amtrak?”
“I’ve worked at my share of transit authorities,” responded the BM. “But that is not where I met Spambot, and that is a story for another time.”
“How did he teleport me?”
“The subways listen to him, clerk. Just as I command buses.” The BM increased his pace, tugging Joe along. “We have to go faster.”
“Is someone coming after us?”
“Something, clerk. The night itself.”
“I meant to ask about that.”
“Some moron Professor is trying to take over the world. Spambot reported you’re familiar with games—think Dr. Wily.”
“This darkness is his doing.”
“He has exploited a bureaucratic flaw in the system that governs light, and is using it to propagate this fake nighttime.”
“The darkness fuels his minions. They use the darkness to spin monsters and demons into existence.”
“You seem to be taking this in stride. You are strong of mind, clerk. This is good. Now, listen: night fell on the West Coast more than a week ago. It finally spread to the East Coast just now. A powerful demon summoner is en route to New York City, and her arrival would have destroyed you if you’d lingered longer.”
“The Professor recognized your talents long before the rest of us did—otherwise, Spambot would have sent you here long ago. Here we are.” The BM pushed Joe forward. “Get in.”
A mechanical voice announced, “51B, Rockridge Bart.”
A door opened in the darkness in front of Joe. He could see the well-lit interior of a bus. No one was aboard the vehicle save the driver. Joe stepped up and paid the requisite two dollars ten cents.
The BM followed, waving at the driver and paying nothing. Joe saw that the BM looked every bit an aged homeless man. His clothing was thick, worn, and mismatched, his hair long and dirty, his skin weathered and wrinkled. The BM turned off his flashlight and gestured for Joe to sit down.
“We’re headed for the U.C. Berkeley administration building. There, we will find the Professor’s secret server room. You will access his files and revert his exploits.”
“I’m not a hacker.”
“You don’t need to be,” said the BM. “You just need to know your way around systems administration software.”
“That stuff does come easily to me,” said Joe, “but how am I different from any office worker?”
“You’re the best. And you know the night.”
Joe was nonplussed.
“I’ll do my best.”
“That is all one can ever do,” said the BM, smiling.
The bus trundled along pitch-black streets for four minutes. Then the bus stopped and the doors opened.
“Here you go, Mr. BM,” said the driver. “Good luck.”
“Thanks, Tim,” said the BM. “Good afternoon.”
Joe and the BM stepped down into the darkness.
“I have to apologize in advance,” said the BM. “Though I will try to protect you, this is a dangerous place.”
Joe trembled slightly, half excited and half scared of what the darkness had in store.
“I’m following you,” he said. “Let’s go.”
The bus rushed off into the distance and the two were left alone with the weak glow of the BM’s flashlight. Before our heroes had gotten very far, the darkness was interrupted by several skittering forms. They loomed somehow blacker against the blackness, their eyes shining obsidian in the flashlight. Hisses and roars emanated from the darkness, and Joe made himself as small as he could behind the BM.
Road noise countered the roars and an engine zoomed in a circle around the two. The dim outline of a bus was briefly visible, and then three squishy thuds and a sick splattering marked the demise of their assailants.
Joe breathed a “wow.”
“Did you do that?”
“Yes,” said the BM. “Let’s hurry. I can’t keep that up all day long.”
The two broke into a run. Joe wasn’t one for speed, but he felt leaner and fitter than he had in years. The adventure invigorated him, made everything 20% cooler.
The BM advised Joe to tread cautiously as they hopped up the steps of what the BM explained was Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. The BM summoned another bus to batter the front doors, and the two blasted their way into the administrative building. “Left. Right. Down. Right.”
Joe followed the BM’s directions as they dashed through the dark building. The BM seemed to have a map of the place in his head, running at full speed through the narrow corridors without a single collision.
“We’re here.” The BM held his flashlight out, showing a locked door. “I only have one bus left. Can you open this?”
Joe thought for a moment, and then remembered the spare office supplies he’d been sneaking home every day in his backpack. He eased his pack to the ground and produced a couple paperclips.
He’d never done this before, but it came easily to him. Just holding the paperclips felt right. He used his shoe and the tile floor to bend them into shape and picked the lock in ten seconds flat.
“You really are good,” said the BM.
Joe shrugged and followed the BM into the room. The darkness in this room was darker yet than that outside. The BM’s flashlight emitted nothing.
“There’s a keyboard here,” said the BM, groping about in the dark. “But how are you going to type in the dark?”
Joe reached out and took the keyboard from the BM. He felt along its cord to where it was plugged in. Standard USB port. He pulled and threw the keyboard on the ground. He pulled his own out of his backpack and plugged it in. The keys lit up.
“Backlit keys,” he chortled.
Fumbling further in the dark, Joe managed to flip a switch. A booting chime rang and a monitor on the wall came to life. Joe could barely read the monitor by squinting. It was enough. His fingers flew over his keyboard as he navigated the file system and launched applications. He wasn’t familiar with the visual interface used on this particular terminal, but it didn’t matter. He knew his way around this kind of software. He knew what to look for. He hit tab and space each a dozen times as he sped through menus and options. Finally he had it. The preference pane wherein the day was set to night.
He hit the save button and immediately the darkness in the room began to recede.
“You did it, clerk!”
“I did it, BM.”
And then an explosion rocked the building. The wall-mounted computer came crashing down, knocking an unawares BM to the ground.
Joe cried out and reached down to help his ally up.
“What’s going on?”
“The Professor’s a sore loser,” coughed the BM. Blood drenched his vest. “You should get out of here before the self-destruct program completes.”
“I can’t just abandon you,” said Joe. “It… it wouldn’t be Christian.”
“Run while you can,” the BM insisted. He staggered to his feet, grabbed Joe by the arm, and exited the room. The hall was bright. “The Professor’s minions will be here to make sure we’re buried. Get out, survive, and fight another day!”
Joe refused to leave his ally behind.
Sure enough, the minions were only seconds behind the BM’s warning. They rushed down the hall, slithering flying scuttling, gaping maws dripping with darkness. The BM extended his hand and a bus shot down the hallway, flattening the monsters.
“I’m done for,” he said. “Get out of here, Joe.”
More minions poured into the hallway from both sides, pincering the two.
“Damn it, it’s too late.”
“It’s not too late,” said Joe. “If Sam’s got the subways and you’ve got the buses, I have the office supplies. I’m special, right? The best clerk.” He brandished his keyboard and braced himself for combat. He felt ridiculous, a pudgy office worker staring down a horde of nightmares, but he had faith.
With one mighty swing, he clove three skittering monstrosities in twain. He kicked his backpack into the air, pulled a staple gun from it, and fixed four more minions to the walls.
“Let’s go, BM.”
He looked back. The BM was on the ground, surrounded by burning bus tires and covered in feasting minions. Another explosion rocked the complex and Joe leaned against the wall for balance.
“It’s over,” sighed the defeated BM. “Go…”
Joe wiped hot tears across his cheeks. He said a brief prayer for the BM, and then considered his escape options. He had no bus, no train, no transport vehicle to carry him away from the exploding Sproul Hall. All he had was his keyboard. Emboldened by the success of his two previous uses of office supplies, he placed his keyboard on the ground and stepped onto it. It grew to the size of a surfboard and hovered into the air. Joe grabbed his backpack, leaned forward, and zoomed through the horde of oncoming minions, shattering them with a ream of printer paper.
On the lookout for holes left by the various explosions, Joe took the first exit out of the building and rode into the fading night sky. Actual, real, normal night overtook Joe as he flew east, and he reached Manhattan just as dawn broke. As the first rays of daylight touched New York City, he alighted and his keyboard shrunk back to normal size. Heart heavy, the Clerk of the Night prepared for another boring day of clerical work at Amtrak.
None of the thrill of adventure remained. None of the power, none of the excitement. Joe looked around his boring apartment, picked out a fresh shirt, and then boarded the subway to Queens.
Somehow he knew that that night, and every night to come, he would again find himself regulating evil.