Upon reflection, Billy thought it odd that it had taken them several days, a compromised safe house, and a prophetic dream to finally get them to the London Aquarium. Dane hadn’t been too enthused about the idea of going to such a public place, but once Billy mentioned the dream, he hadn’t needed much convincing.
He had told Dane the dream involved the giant squid in a winter enclosure, laying beneath the unmistakable starfish-bedecked banner for the aquarium. He’d left out the part where the squid, dead and sloshing about in its giant glass tank, was following a line of penguins around the enclosure, toddling up the hill and sliding merrily down the steepest part of the slope.
“We’re closing in just a minute,” the lady behind the counter said. “But you can always come back tomorrow.” She flashed Dane a winning smile, which irked Billy to no end.
Billy subtly pressed his way in front of Dane, holding out his museum ID. He was careful to casually angle his fingers over his name. “We’re here from the Natural History Museum,” he said. “Richard said he’d noticed some of the cuttlefish’s lateral lines are diverging in a nonstandard pattern, and he wanted my help identifying which region they were originally from.”
“Oh!” she said. “Do you need me to get someone to buzz you through?”
Billy waved her off, tucking his badge back in his pocket. “No need, I still know the codes, so long as you haven’t changed them in the past few weeks. We’ll just go in, take a couple photos and measurements, then get out of your hair.”
“Sounds great! Thank you so much for your help,” the woman chirped.
“No problem,” Billy said, giving an equally (if not more) charming smile, and slid away from the desk, Dane right behind him.
They went past the big, flashy sign advertising “Coming This December: Penguin Father Fishmas!” and weaved their way through the exiting crowd. The families seemed happy, if a bit tired. Billy found it odd to be surrounded by people who weren’t quietly freaking out about the impending end of the world.
Several young people in blue polo shirts were politely but firmly herding the crowd of people towards the exit, armed only with walkie-talkies and a No Nonsense Attitude. Billy held up his badge, said the magic words, “I’m with Richard,” and they parted before him. It was like a knack, only a bit more bureaucratic.
A little kid, five years old at the most, was resisting his grandfather's urging to leave. He just sat there with his nose pressed against the glass. There were little silver fish swimming around in the tank, but the kid was just staring at one of the bushy sea plants at the side of the tank.
“Let’s go,” his grandfather said, tugging on his hand, but the kid refused to budge.
“The aquarium is closing, so you need to get going, sweetie,” the security person said, but like Billy, the kid was immune to her powers of Polo Shirt and Walkie Talkie.
“Nooooooo,” the kid said, nose still pressed to the glass.
Dane knelt down next to him. “See something interesting?”
The kid nodded, nose making a vertical smudge on the glass. “Uh huh.”
“Well, it’s time to go, but if you like, I’ll keep watch while you go, just in case something happens,” he said gently.
The kid seemed to think this was acceptable. He pulled back from the glass and slowly walked away with his grandfather, checking over his shoulder every few seconds to make sure Dane was keeping watch. The security lady mouthed “Thank you” silently at them, which only Billy saw since Dane was busy staring at the plant.
“You’re good with kids,” Billy said.
Dane just huffed and continued dutifully looking at the plant.
“Anything interesting happening?” Billy asked.
“No, but you never know. Kids can be perceptive,” Dane said, “and some creatures are good at hiding.”
“Kid’s gone,” Billy said. Dane slowly got to his feet, and they continued walking. “So, head for the penguin area? That’s what it looked like in my dream and it’s not far from the research area, so we can just say we took a wrong turn.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Dane said. He patted his coat in several places, and Billy tried to not think about what kind of hidden weapons he was checking.
They took a turn into a side room, which was dark and filled with tanks of floating jellyfish. They were lit from below, and glowed a pale pink as they bobbed and drifted through the water.
Billy paused at one of the smaller tanks of jellyfish.
“Huh, that’s weird,” Billy said. “Why is there an anemone in the tank?” The anemone's spiky striped tendrils poked up from the bottom of the tank, somehow not tangling with any of the dangling jellyfish.
“They are related,” Dane said, but he was frowning, too.
“I know,” Billy said, “but it doesn’t make sense why they’d be put so close together in a tank...” A custodian in a darker blue polo came through, and Billy held out his ID, saying, “Just taking a shortcut to the research area. Meeting Richard.”
The custodian grunted and continued cleaning.
They exited the jellyfish room and walked past the cafeteria, set up like a tiny bistro in a side room. They both tried to studiously ignore the placard that read “Try our new special: Fried Calamari!” and had a little cartoon squid drawn next to it. Dane grimaced and stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets.
“So!” Billy said brightly. “Did you go to aquariums a lot when you were a kid?”
Dane nodded. “My grandfather'd take me when we had the time.”
Billy thought back to the little kid. “Was it that hard to get you to leave?”
Dane paused for a moment in thought, then said, “Harder.”
They reached a branching point in the aquarium. Billy took a quick look around and, seeing no security or cleaning staff, ducked into the penguin section. “I’m not really sure what I’m looking for,” Billy confessed.
“We’ll keep our eyes open,” Dane said mildly. Billy wondered if Dane believed Billy’s dream, or if he was just glad to be doing something besides waiting and hiding.
The path led them past a covered, icy touch tank and through a tunnel, low enough that Billy had to get on his hands and knees to crawl through. The penguins were on the other side, separated by a pane of glass, and sleeping in the artificial night.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, as far as Billy could see. To be honest, he had never come to this particular exhibit. His trips to the aquarium were usually just a quick stop by to examine something or pick up a specimen, with little time spent just walking around. It was a little depressing to admit, but Billy would rather avoid the living creatures in favor of their bottled counterparts.
Still, the penguin house seemed relatively normal. He didn’t have much experience with penguins, preserved or otherwise, but they were sleeping in little groups, their beaks tucked uselessly under flippers. None of them were moving around, nothing was in the water, and there wasn’t even a hint of a squid playing with the penguins.
“Sorry, looks like this lead’s a dead end,” Billy said.
Dane grabbed Billy’s shoulder and yanked him back, putting his body in front of Billy’s. He reached under his coat and pulled out a gun.
“What?” Billy asked. Dane pointed upwards.
A large skate was swimming around the ceiling, its fins bending and curving as it circled, riding the slight air currents the way it would water currents.
“What is that?” Billy asked.
“Don’t know,” Dane said. He started backing Billy towards the exit tunnel. “I don’t think it’s the aquarium’s angel, not unless it’s changed recently.”
Billy pulled his phaser from his pocket, but kept it lowered, just in case.
The skate swam through the air, circling closer. It swam around them, and Dane turned with it, keeping his gun trained on it the entire time. There was something strange about the skate--well, obviously, considering how it was floating through the air, but beyond that, its flesh was oddly striped, and it was missing the set of eyes and mouth on its underside.
The skate came in closer, and Billy raised his phaser.
In a quick burst of motion, the skate’s fins split apart into many ropey tendrils, wrapping around Billy’s wrist and arms. It squeezed his wrist, and he couldn't clench his fingers enough to press the button to fire the phaser.
“Dane, help!” Billy cried. The tentacles wrenched at Billy’s arm, and it was all he could do just to stay on his feet.
“I can’t get a good shot!” Dane said, trying to circle around the side, but the clever creature was always keeping Billy between itself and Dane.
Billy hit at the creature with his left hand, but it remained firmly wrapped around his right arm.
“Let go of the thing!” Dane yelled.
Billy instantly complied, and opened his fingers. The creature snatched the phaser from his hand and swam off quickly over the tunnel.
“Are you okay?” Dane asked.
Billy rubbed his sore wrist. “I think so. What was that thing?”
“Not sure. First it looked like a skate, then an octopus.”
“It had ten tentacles, though,” Billy said.
Dane tilted his head. “You counted?”
“I kind of had a close view,” Billy said. He got down on his hands and knees and started crawling through the tunnel.
“What are you doing?” Dane asked.
“That phaser’s already gotten me through a lot of trouble,” Billy said, crawling after the creature, “and whatever that thing was, it didn’t really try to hurt me. I’m going to go chase it down.”
Dane grumbled, but followed after Billy.
The creature was gone by the time they exited the tunnel. Billy peered down the different corridors, but didn’t see a skate or an octopus anywhere.
Dane snapped his fingers, a slight flash of light appearing at that spot in the air. Another tiny flash showed up like an echo in the next room. “This way,” Dane said. He led the way into the room, gun only hidden in the most cursory way by the fold of his coat, trusting Billy to follow. Billy really hoped they wouldn’t run into any security people along the way.
“Is that how your knack works?” Billy asked.
“Not most of the time,” Dane said. They reached another intersection, and Dane snapped his fingers again. There wasn’t any echoing flash this time.
A muffled voice came from Billy’s pocket. “Is everything going okay with you two?”
Billy pulled a little green army man out of his pocket. “Wati! How’s the strike going?”
“Not well,” Wati said, looking as tired as a little plastic man could. “I was in the area, so I thought I'd check in, but I can only stay for a minute or two.”
“Can you do us a favor and scout around here for a striped octopus or skate? It stole something of mine,” Billy asked.
“Sure, hang on one moment,” Wati said, and suddenly, the little green army man was just a little green army man, and Wati flitted among the statues, from giant plaster sharks to tiny diving men.
A moment later, Wati was back. “Two rooms down, then take the room on the left. The one with all the environmental messages on the wall.”
“Thanks,” Dane said.
“No problem. Be sure you know what you’re doing. Not many people can go up against an angel of memory,” Wati said.
“It’s a what?” Billy asked in shock, but Wati was gone again, and the green army man stared back blankly.
“That don’t make sense,” Dane said, scratching his head. “Angels ain’t supposed to change their shape unless they’re defeated and have to remake themselves.”
“It’s okay,” Billy said, taking a deep breath. “I’ll just go in there and...negotiate, I guess.” He made motions between himself and the direction of the angel. “Prophet to angel, right?” His voice quavered a little at the word ‘prophet,’ but it didn’t feel so strange as before.
Dane looked at him incredulously, but he motioned towards the angel’s room with a clear ‘after you’ gesture.
They silently went through the two rooms, and Billy peered cautiously through the entrance to the angel’s room.
A long, striped snake was dangling over a display. Its tail writhed, and its head made several snapping motions at Billy. Billy jumped back.
“I get it now. It’s a mimic octopus,” Dane said, leveling a small harpoon gun over Billy’s shoulder. For once, the antiquated weapon seemed appropriate. “So whatever it pretends to look like, just remember, it’s only an octopus.”
“So I shouldn’t worry?” Billy asked.
“No, they’re still plenty dangerous,” Dane said, keeping the harpoon level.
“Okay.” Billy took another big breath. “I--”
The angel lunged at Billy, the tentacle that was its snake head joining its tail and eight others in a spiraling mess. Billy winced, expecting any moment for the tentacles to wrap around his head and squeeze...
The angel went past him and wrapped its tentacles around Dane’s harpoon gun. It hung there, head lolling, seeming generally content to cling to the weapon.
Billy noticed the phaser hanging loosely from one of its tentacles. After taking a moment to squeeze his eyes shut and hope for the best, Billy reached out and snatched the phaser back. The angel didn’t even seem to notice.
Dane slowly waved the harpoon about. The angel’s head bobbed with the motion, the tips of its tentacles curling with excitement. It floated a bit, tugging Dane towards a door marked Staff Only. Billy darted forward and punched in the code to make the door open.
The angel continued to tug them forward. They followed. The room was a nursery of sorts, with a pile of sea turtle eggs under a warming lamp, and several water-filled tanks with floating eggs and tiny hatchlings.
The angel floated up higher and higher, still curled around the harpoon, until Dane was forced to either let go or lose his footing on the ground. He released the harpoon, and the angel floated up and up and up until it and the harpoon slid through the wall, passing beyond the boundaries of the museum.
“I guess he just wanted a weapon before he left for the fight?” Billy asked, staring at the spot where the angel had gone through the wall. “Hey, why did you still have that harpoon gun, anyway? I thought you threw them all away when...” Dane wasn’t responding. He turned to Dane for confirmation, but Dane didn’t look like he had heard him at all.
Dane was standing in front of one of the tanks of water, one hand lightly pressed to the glass. The room was mostly dark, but there was a single light at the base of the tank, lighting up the cone of eggs. The newly hatched squid were floating around the dark water, like tufts of dandelion fluff caught in the breeze.
Some of the tiny squid near Dane flushed brown with worry. Dane snapped his fingers, creating tiny sparks of light. The young squid swam nearer, turning a pleased, contented white. Dane smiled at them--a sweet, calm smile Billy had never seen before.
Billy stepped next to Dane, placing his own hand on the glass. “We’ll get it back, you know,” he said quietly. Together, they watched the little squid pulse and float, like tiny stars against the endless night sky.