The guards marched him down the corridor in procession, two in front, two to his sides, two behind. This was the last step, the last part of this project, and they weren't going to let it get messed up now. He couldn't even see the corridor, couldn't rely on anything other than his feet to guide him forward. They had wrapped the upper half of his head in a fabric so thick it would be impossible to even attempt to see through it, put him in a straightjacket and wrapped him in heavy chain. One section ran through his mouth, the cold metal biting into his tongue and making it impossible to speak.
He might have been a failure, but they were taking no chances, no chances that they might have missed something. There was no way out, none except the way they were marching him forward. And he let himself be carried forwards by the inexorable pull of the soldiers. He had tried to fight briefly when they first came for him, because he knew that they had no clue who they were escorting. If one of them had slipped up even a little bit he could have been off. Free, for a little while, until They caught back up with him, and destroyed him anyways.
It was nothing but cruelty when one of the guards tugged off his blindfold as they shoved him into the metal cylinder. They didn't know him, didn't know that he had once been one of them, before all of this had begun. Now he would be barely recognized as human. His flesh had been cut to ribbons, especially around his face, his nose and lips were missing, his eyelids each carefully removed by the hand of a skilled surgeon. They had wanted to force him to do... something. Something to prove that all the time and money they had spent on him had been worth it.
But the guards, they wanted him to see the fire coming, wanted to see the monster's eyes as he realized he was going to be burning in hell. And at first, it was just as dark as it had been with the blindfold. Little fireflies of imaginary light rippled before his eyes, vanishing as soon as he tried to look straight at them. And then the glow began. It took him a moment to recognize that he could now see the outline of the bridge of his nose, glowing a deep orange-red. And slowly, the shadows that had hid his body from his own eyes began to recede, the chain glowing ominously.
Had this been the way out he was looking for? The glow was increasing even as he stood there, the pace of his breath increasing and echoing around the small room. He had wanted out almost as soon as he had gotten in, but there was no out by that point. There hadn't been an "out" for a very long time. And so he had decided that he would not cooperate, even as the pain continued to increase. He would not give them what they wanted, and the idealism that had filled him when he had initially volunteered was effaced by brutal treatment. He fell to his rage, using that to keep him sane, to stay focused on that one thing. He would not cooperate. He would make the whole project worthless to them.
Was this the way out? The heat was starting to become uncomfortable already, and he couldn't stop the scream that built up from inside of him as the wisps of smoke began to curl around him. He had stopped trying not to scream a long time ago. It only made them think they weren't doing enough.
"No!" he strangled out, tongue working heavily around the chain. He didn't want to die, couldn't believe this would really be the end. He had wanted his noncooperation to lead to his own freedom, not this. But, as the heat grew and he began to scream louder and louder, he realized this was the only freedom he was ever going to get.
And then it went dark.
For a moment, there was nothing. But it didn't stay as nothing. He had long ago given up on God, had come to admit that there would be no place for him in the afterlife. He was stranded and alone, but if death was the end then this couldn't be death. But nor could he say that he was alive anymore, either.
He knew he had been cremated, and that there should be no way to survive that, but he had never been cremated before, so what did he really know about it. But there were no distinctive thoughts, only the instinctual knowledge that he was not gone. He was still on earth, still present, and he only needed to figure out what it would take to get back to normal. Because there had to be a way back. This was not freedom, but a torment almost worse than those he had been forced to face before. Because there was nothing here, only this pointless existence.
And then, how long had it been? It could have been mere moments, it could have been years. He figured it out. It was the exact same thing he had felt growing inside of him through all of that pain. It was the thing that They had so desperately wanted him to reveal. And though, at the moment, he could not define it, it would be enough for him to come back, because he understood it. And then he really would be free.
A bird became the sacrifice. A magpie, looking for scraps of food, that saw only one little, tasty morsel. But he was the morsel, and, like a tiny bacteria, he took the bird over, converting its cells into his own. And from there, it only took moments to grow himself a new human form.
Life looked like a park, and freedom sounded like Philadelphia.
He had been there once, as a kid. His grandparents had moved to Philly for a few years, before heading back south because his grandfather had complained that the cold got into his bones. His mother and father had taken him and his little sister up here, and they had played tourist for a few days.
It was colder here now than when they had visited, and the wind caused shivers to ripple across his naked form. But the ground still retained a little bit of heat from the day, and so, for a moment, he lay still, breathing in the smell of freshly cut grass and listening to the occasional car that skidded by. But he could not stay here. He didn't know how long it had been since he had been burned, didn't know how long he had stayed in that halfway point between mere existence and physical reality, but he doubted that anyone would take kindly to his current nudity.
And so he pushed himself up, taking a deep breath and trying to pull some memories of this city from those long ago memories. He looked around, and it was easy enough to place his current location. Fairmount Park was the only place he had ever been where a cultivated park would not have some form of housing in sight.
The moon was still low in the sky, and there were hours of nighttime left. Hopefully he would be able to find a place to sequester himself until he could get some clothes.