Meandering through gigantic cocoons are two men, each with a clipboard.

"The new batch looks promising."
"Unlike last year."
"The last group did very well with natural disasters."
"But that brought people together. The new generation has no subtlety. It's as if they've never even heard of The Magnificent Seven."
"But some of the seven are becoming more popular."
"Agreed, but not because of this impotent generation."

The pair stops in front of an isolated cocoon. It's almost black compared to the dark brown of the others.

"This one has been here for quite some time now."
"Maybe it went rotten."
"That is what we are hoping."

Somewhere behind them they can hear cracking.

"A hatching?"
"It's a bit early."
"Damn! I hate preemies."

The two walk to the hatching cocoon. This one is tan, almost white. Cracks form across the surface as bits and pieces flake off.

"C'mon little one, push, push. C'mon little one."
"Shut up, the cute is giving me hives."

Moaning starts up from between the cracks, weak and whimpering. The struggling slows down before coming to a stop, nothing but the sound of weak breathing left.

"Shit. I just knew this would happen."
"Help him."
"Why should I?"
"Because I did it last time."

Fingers slip in between the cracks, pulling them apart. Blood oozes to the floor. Small and pale, he lay curled up in the bottom, sniveling.

"Evening. Welcome to the world."
"Congratulations on having been born again."

The sniveling shape slowly stretched out.
"Where am I?"

"No, I mean really. Where am I?"
"You can't possibly mean that I'm-"
"How are your wings feeling Mr. um... Smith."
"What do mean my... my. Oh."
"Mr. Smith. I'd like to officially welcome you to Hell."
"I always thought I did enough to good things to avoid coming here."
"Being good doesn't get anyone into heaven Mr. Smith. But moving on, I'm sorry to say your birthing was rather premature. As a result we do not currently have any openings for you. Furthermore, you are woefully lacking in the main qualifications for jobs here."
"Wait, jobs? People have jobs in hell?"
"Yes Mr. Smith. And I should remind you that Dante never actually visited us. And if you would be so kind as to follow me, we can get you started."
"I thought you said you didn't have any openings?"
"Not here no. You will be outsourced back to earth."

The trio made their way back through all the cocoons. The two men talked to one another as Mr. Smith examined his new form, flexing his wings.

"Pale useless git. I knew today was going to be a bad day."
"Calm down. Think about it this way, we need someone to do the boring work."

"Um... excuse me? I can hear you."

The two men carried on as if Mr. Smith had not said a word.

"But I was still hoping for something more than just another damn accountant. Worthless pencil pushers."
"But still necessary. Would you rather someone capable of something else sit behind a desk?"
"It's just depressing."
"I know. But we'll make do."

Mr. Smith was mildly annoyed now. "Um... excuse me?"

The two men stopped abruptly.

"Holy shit."
"Gimme this snot's records. I knew he was familiar."
"This little shit was already one of us when he died. Look. He had been put on earth as an out sourcing, died and now he is here again, worthless as ever."
"Wait a moment, are you saying he can pass as human?"
"Yeah the worthless git has so little demon in him the humans can't tell the difference."
"We just hit the jackpot."
"Excuse me? With this trash?"
"Think about it."
"What do you mean think about- oh my god."

"Mr. Smith?"
"When you were on earth, did you attend church on Sundays?"
"Of course. I mean, who wants to go to hell?"
"Excellent. Now, would anyone have noticed that you died?"
"Don't think so. I kept to myself a lot."
"Mr. Smith. How would you like to go back to your life? As if you had never died?"
"I guess that would be nice, yeah. Is there a catch?"
"Well, as an employee of Hell, you would be obligated to perform any duties assigned to you."
"Do I get a salary?"
"Double what you had been making previously."
"What kind of duties do I have to do?"
"We will see."
"Oh. Well um, that sounds nice."
"I'm glad you think so. Now please take this form and follow the yellow arrows on the ground."
"Thank you, I think."
"You are welcome. Now, go on."

The two men watched him stumble off. One of them made some notes on his clipboard.

"Is this really a good idea?"
"I don't see why not."
"He did forget he was a demon the first time he went to earth."
"Back then he was a nobody. This time around we'll be sure to remind him."
"You're taking the blame for this if it goes wrong."
"Of course. And I'll take the credit for it when it goes right."
"Fine. But it's time to go back. We never finished our inventory."
"After you."

And so began the apocalypse.

In the Beginning

They don't tell me or us or any of us who volunteer for the faster-than-light travel and the tanksleep, that there are dreams, or anything at all like this...

I dreamed of fishes in the deep sea, and they swam through the dying light of the sunset. Their scales flashed, silver and crimson and golden, the colors of the sky as the day sunk under the horizon, and I saw them fall like so many glittering stars. Somewhere, far below, there is an ocean, my mind reeling at the vast size of it and the green shimmering off the rolling waves to a nonexistent shore.

Wait. There is no ocean, but I'm choking on goo in this tank, my hands flexing, fighting, sliding off the slick metal of the surface, the latchless prison...

Back into dreamtime again, and the sky is the ocean, the ocean is the sky. Treading water with the fishes, feeling the salt in my veins, the shuddering under my skin, the prickling. Far below, something tugs at my feet, like seaweed snaking around my ankles, and a thousand doves (seagulls?) take flight against the evening sky. There are fires on the deep.

Something deep below is glowing, and I am drowning with the song of sirens and doves in the endless green and blue and black. Somewhere above, the tank is beeping, furiously as I settle back in the fluid. There is nothing now but the salt, nothing now but the ocean, and it is everywhere. My hands drift above, my hair drifts in the tide, in the undercurrent. Something is flowing here, flowing in my veins and the water.

There are lights on the lid, cycling slowly, in a line of red: first failure, error, then to orange, caution. One by one, they go red, then orange, then green. One by one, the stars in the fish-wreathed sky go out, flashing with the last light of the day

There is something new in my back, and as a great shell swallows me up and a tail blooms from my legs, and I join my siren sisters, I hear myself singing. The hinged lid beneath the sea is closing as it opens elsewhere, and the lights are green, and the deckplating here is old and rusting, and the ten other voices, singing raggedly their song of transformation cry out, echoing back against the metal. Something skitters in my veins, then flows like water, and my voice joins their own as my back erupts in agony.

The liquid in the tanks churn as one by one, we, the sleepers, awake, and our backs bloom with ephemeral traceries of nanobots. Like mercury, the veins and bones and the ghost of feathers grow, and the tank beeps again. Again.

As the tanks send us, the sirens, the cyborgs, our dose of pain blockers, we curl in, knees to chest, the ocean flowing between us, the salt on our lips, the network in the tanks, in this laboratory, in the faster-than-light messages between stars and ships passing through us. We are the ship, we are ourselves (and laughter passes between us, weak, and shaky - I am Amanda, I am Meiko, I am Talya, I am, I am...), and we feel, as one, the muscles in our backs trembling. They are agitating with nanobots as we flex our wings, our minds, and our entirely human, inhuman network all at once.

In the perception, in the dream, there is a great ocean of data, and we, I, the sirens rise now, one by one, calling out to the others. The tides lap slowly to the shore and against the buoys, and far away, the silicon and golden circuits catch our tones and echo back. Slowly, they too begin to grow wings.

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