Night duty at Magmell was eerie and unsettling at first--with only a handful of security lights left on overnight, the underwater corridor wrapping around the main body of the aquarium was a sea of shadows, not so different from the one on the other side of the glass. Alone in the empty, cavernous hallways with a mere pinprick of light from his tiny flashlight to guide him, it was easy for Koutarou to imagine that he, too, was drifting two hundred meters beneath the surface just like the wild creatures who made the Tokyo Submarine Canyon their home, even when he hadn't stayed up late the night before watching Night of the Deep Sea with Ran.
But despite the playful teasing and occasional ghost stories from the staff during those jittery first shifts, Koutarou came to love Magmell at night with as much fervor he did during the day. It was a side of this magical place experienced only by those lucky enough to work here, and he savored every moment as proof that he finally belonged.
Ironically, he rarely witnessed many wild creatures during these nightly patrols--the majority of species capable of movement migrated to the surface to feed once the sun set during the night before sinking back down to the comparative safety of the depths during the day. Koutarou had to content himself with the one-of-a-kind menagerie that was the heart of Magmell's collection--those creatures actively on display as well as the kept out of the public eye in the back rooms.
That was until the night he turned a corner and came face to face with a real ghost.
It was a completely understandable mistake--the strange creature was floating right at eye level, as if hovering in space. Then Koutarou's mind caught up with the rest of him, and he realized it was no ghost, but a deep purple-red jellyfish, larger than any species he'd ever seen before.
The umbrella-shaped bell housing the bulk of the jellyfish's internal organs was smooth and curved like an alien spacecraft, almost a meter wide and slowly pulsing up and down as the jellyfish moved through the water. Four "arms" dangled down from the bell, each a meter in length themselves, but they were dwarfed by four even longer, wider arms that were ten times the size that billowed and swayed like curtains in the current.
For a moment, Koutarou simply stared, unable to believe his eyes. The flashlight slipping from his numb fingers with a clatter and rolled across the floor unnoticed. Time stopped completely; the strange jellyfish might have been his entire world, with nothing at all existing outside of the two of them. Equally absorbed in its own pursuits, the jellyfish swayed back and forth through the water, completely oblivious to Koutarou's existence.
He had to document this! He had to!
Koutarou's paralysis broke, and he fumbled for his father's camera around his neck, only to realize he had left it at his desk earlier in the evening. With a muffled curse, he reached for his phone, flicked frantically to the camera and began taking pictures as quickly as he could. He fully expected them to come out so blurry as to be useless in such low light, but it was better than nothing. Fortunately, Magnell had been designed with a special kind of glass that allowed visitors to take pictures of deep sea life without disturbing them, and none of the flashes would scare the jellyfish away.
In a fit of sudden inspiration, Koutarou switched to video, breathlessly narrating his experience as he tracked the jellyfish's every movement. For one minute and thirty-seven seconds, the jellyfish was there--and then, without warning, it slipped into the darkness of the deep sea and vanished from sight.
Koutarou stared after it, then down at his phone, and paused the video, blinking as if he'd woken from a dream. Bending to retrieve his abandoned flashlight, he glanced back up at the glass, longing for the mysterious jellyfish to return, and full of awe that he had been blessed by such a visitation.
It had happened so quickly, he couldn't help wondering if it had been a dream. But, as a quick replay of the video proved, the experience was real.
Normally, Koutarou would snag a nap on the bed in the night duty room between patrols, but he was too wired to sleep and the rest of the night passed in a heady daze. By the time the rest of the staff started to trickle in in the morning, the adrenaline rush had worn off and he was struggling to stay awake, even with the help of coffee in the break room.
"Good morning, Koutarou-kun," Shizuka said with her usual good cheer, her pigtails bouncing behind her. "How was your shift last night?" She caught sight of his haggard face and paused. "Are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost!"
"Shizuka-san! You'll never believe what I saw last night!" Koutarou said. "Look!"
Shizuka blinked, but obligingly took in the phone waving in front of her face, her polite interest shifting to genuine astonishment as Koutarou scrolled through photo after photo of the giant jellyfish. "You saw this?!"
"Um, yeah? Do you know what it is?"
"I know Director Minato needs to see this right away!"
Before Koutarou knew what was happening, she yanked down on his arm and dragged him over to where the director was chatting with Asahi. "Director! Come and look at what Koutarou-kun saw here last night!"
"Oh, good morning, Shizuka-san, Koutarou-kun," Minato Oezaki said pleasantly, completely unperturbed by their rudeness. "What's all the excitement about?"
"Yes, what exactly is so important?" Asahi said. He pushed his glasses up his nose and glared at both of them. "This had better be good!"
"Director Minato!" Koutarou said, his face flaming. "I'm so sorry, we--"
"You two have to see what Koutarou-kun saw outside last night!" Shizuka said, passing the phone to the director. "If it's what I think this is--"
Minato whistled as he took in the photos. "Oh, my," he said at last, shaking his head in admiration. "You're absolutely right, Shizuka-san. Koutarou-kun saw something very special last night."
"You have got to be kidding me," Asahi said in disgust.
"You mean you know what it is?" Koutarou said eagerly.
"Of course I do! It's impossible to mistake for anything else! This is a giant phantom jellyfish, Stygiomedusa gigantea, a member of the moon jelly family and the only member of its genus. It's thought to be one of the largest invertebrate predators in the deep sea. It can be found as deep as six thousand meters or so, but seems to be more commonly encountered in the midnight zone."
From anyone else, this might have come off as a lecture, but Minato's buoyant enthusiasm for his subject was impossible to miss and Koutarou soaked up this new knowledge like a sponge. "That's amazing!" he said.
Minato tapped the phone and zoomed in for more detail and held it up so the others could see it. "Unlike other jellyfish, S. gigantea doesn't have any tentacles or stinging cells. Instead, it swims with its long arms and uses them to basically absorb any small, planktonic creatures or small fish that get stuck to them. Or so scientists think--there's still a lot we don't know about this species.
"Although it likely has a worldwide distribution, this jellyfish is something of a legend among marine biologists--there have only been one hundred and ten confirmed sightings in one hundred and ten years. Well. Better make that one hundred and eleven now," Minato added as an afterthought, grinning at the stunned look on Koutarou's face. "Congratulations, Koutarou-kun!"
"I saw something rare... that only a few people have?" Koutarou said slowly.
"Yup!" Minato said cheerfully. "Well, this is going to be quite a coup for Magmell, I can tell you that. With your permission, I'd like to post this video on social media for everyone to admire, and we'll see about publishing an official record of your sighting in a scientific journal."
"Oh, Koutarou-kun, that's great!" Shizuka said.
"I cannot believe this!" Asahi muttered, trying and failing to play it cool. "Some people have all the luck!"
Minato chuckled. "And as a bonus, I think night duty is about to become very popular--once word gets out, everyone on staff is going to be after me for night duty from now on in hopes they might get to see it, too! "
Koutarou's head was still spinning. He'd known from the moment he'd laid eyes on the jellyfish that it was magical--but he would never have guessed just how magical. And there was still one more surprise left to come.
"Your father always wanted to get a picture of the giant phantom jellyfish, but as far as I know he never did," Minato said.
"Wait, wait, wait," Koutarou said. "I did something that Dad didn't?"
"That's right!" Minato agreed. "He'd be so proud of you, Koutarou-kun. I know I am."
Dad would be proud of me, too?
"Koutarou-kun? Are you all right?"
Shizuka's concern drew him back to the present and he realized he'd been staring off into space. "Heheh, I'm fine," he said, rubbing his head sheepishly. "I'm just so--so happy, that's all."
Minato chuckled indulgently. "And you have every right to be. Just send me the pictures and the video as soon as possible so we can put them up online, and share them with everyone, and then go home and sleep. You've definitely earned it."
"Yes, sir! I'll send them to you right away!"
All of Koutarou's dreams had come true at once, and he couldn't believe it. Just wait until he told his family that he'd caught a rare and beautiful jellyfish on camera, one that even his own father hadn't been able to photograph! Only at Magmell were such wonders possible.
He couldn't imagine working anywhere else.