Joseph’s family wasn’t there anymore. According to the records, he was found by a scavenge team in the Aquamarine complex 22 years ago. The information was hard to get by, and thus, in Joe’s opinion, reliable. He’d gone as soon as he could join a scavenge team himself. Teams going to Aquamarine weren’t that frequent now as it was stripped nearly clean according to the records. There were, however, some archaeologists still going there and studying the ancient way of building construction and architecture. Joe never bothered to look at what a building looked like on the outside hence he had to do a fair bit of study inside the library until he could pass for a facade enthusiast in the right circles. But in time, he got in with the right people and gently nudged them towards the idea of an Aquamarine exploration. The man he chose to work over was named Chance. Ironic, Joe thought at the time as he maneuvered the man and his friends into an exploration frenzy. Soon, they requested the permit for an expedition and asked Joe to join them. He “reluctantly” agreed and then went back to his apartment to get his provisions ready for an extended stay. The others had requested a work permit for a week's time, but Joe wasn’t sure that would be enough, so he prepared to disappear in the complex for as long as needed to find the truth.
Joe had never been out of the party’s home complex, which had the designation - Orange. That was his home and his world, or at least that's what they told him. As the party neared the border, they saw a lone tree with soft red leaves in the middle of the corridor. The leaves were colored that way to signify the bacterial outbreak they were protecting against. Everyone stopped at the tree, and input the necessary data into the holographic suit control modules that appeared above their open palms. Red meant pulmonary hazard, so protective headgear would be in constant use until they got back.
Everyone’s faces were swallowed up by black tint, and only then did they venture in.
They found no structures remaining in the complex. Everything was in pieces, scattered around on the ground, which made movement very difficult. The first few days, Chance reconstructed the entirety of the complex using giant holograms. Each building stood upright once more, and the soft lines of the hologram made it look like one of the ancient movies they showed kids in schools, the ones that were in only black and white and had no sound. The holograms could produce color of course, but that would burn through them faster, and Chance was worried that they wouldn’t last to the end of the expedition. He decided that the holograms will color the complex on the last day, just before we depart so that they could take pictures and then continue the study back at Aquamarine. That interested Joe only in passing. He listened only barely when they were discussing the day's activities and divvying up the quadrants. Joe’s only concern was to get to “J-23”, the square marked on the map he’d found in his personal files. He didn’t know where exactly that was, but the reconstruction progress of the group was great, and according to calculation - day five or six would be the one that would have an accurate enough map of the whole complex reconstructed. So Joe waited for his birthsquare to be found. Then he could go and check its basement. As he’d learned, each building had a space where important information could be stored, much like the devices called “black boxes” used in the ancients flying machines. Joe wasn’t sure that he’d find something there. Hell, he wasn’t even sure if the device was operable, and if it was, would he be able to open it?
All these questions seemed minuscule compared to the rage burning inside him. The inferno was so powerful that he barely managed to function normally each day. The blaze in his stomach urged him on, towards the truth about his origins or the void that would become his life if he found nothing. Whatever the outcome was, it would be better than this half life he was living. Most of the time he spent in his mind, cursing his abductors, his colleagues, and friends, bowing and scraping for their favor. The anger made him sick most days, his hands shook from it, and his mouth quivered. Closing his eyes for the thousandth time, Joe began to soothe the tempest in his head, slowly diminishing it down to a simple storm. A monitor close by beeped and caught his attention. Sliding his chair closer to the machine, Joe’s eyes looked at the information, and his face inside the helmet became a wide smile. There it was - “J-23”. Joe’s muscles tightened, and he found he was shivering from the pure excitement of the possible answers that lay just a hundred feet away from their camp. Slowing down his breath, Joe copied the information to his personal electronic assistant and went outside the tent. Gathering the equipment he might need, he drew attention, and others came to ask him where he was headed. He didn't have time for chats, but he didn't want to arouse suspicion either.
“I’m going to check something out. Don’t wait up for me,” he said to each person that asked, as the wide grin didn’t leave his lips.
Reaching the square indicated on his map, he saw two giant blocks of rubble were taking up almost the entirety of block J-23. The compound they’d used to melt the composite material that made up the buildings wouldn’t be enough, so Joe set down the cases he carried in each hand. The first case contained a portable battery that he set up, and then he opened the second case. The tool inside was an industrial-grade plasma cutter that would get him through the rubble in about two hours, according to the machine’s own estimate. The battery charge would last him three, so Joe leaned in and placed his left palm on the surface. With his other hand, he began to cut away at the solid piece. Soon, superheated chunks of the composite and fiery red sparks flew towards his visor. Their ice-cold reflections flashing for a moment on the reflective surface then melting away into the air.
Two hours and twelve minutes later, Joe stood above the frames of an inlaid door. He tried to bring his wrist close to the door, but his knees gave way under the excitement, and he fell on them. The device began to communicate with the old door. The circle indicator on the assistant began to fill up from the outside in. Joe’s bodysuit couldn’t get rid of his built-up sweat, and some of it got in his eyes just as the indicator marked 98%. Joe blinked, despite his best efforts and then saw the door open. Inside was a small data chip held in a see-through box. Taking it out, he fed it to his assistant and began to open the audio files that were there. As each one began, Joe’s body slumped more and more. Soon, both of his palms were on the ground, straining to keep him from falling down. He looked as if heavy sacks of nutrients were heaped on his back, as if the ground was a mad beast trying to get at him, relentlessly pushing forward. Joe's father had recorded the files. Each detailed the ongoing negotiations between the Aquamarine and Orange sector. Joe desperately wanted the voice to remind him of his father, but all it did was make the emptiness left by the absence of his family bigger. The final entry recited the underhanded methods the Orange sector had resorted to in order to remove Joe’s people from the complex. The conflict seemed so matter of fact, that Joe’s father did not even mention its inception. It was just there, like air almost. Joe’s tears ran down his cheeks and fell on the inside of his visor. He turned off the speakers of his helmet because the echoes of his sobs made him feel pathetic, and he would not allow anyone from Orange sector to hear his suffering. None of his enemies would see him grieve the loss of his people. If anyone happened on him, they would only see a figure close to the ground, its fists hitting the uncaring composite as rage and sadness contorted its form. There, in the ruins of the sector, the figure would remain until the portable battery by its side signaled the end of its charge. The sound put an end to Joe’s fit, and he tried to stand, but all he managed was to trip and forcibly sit down on the ground. He sat and thought for a long time. He thought about his family, what times they could’ve had and what they might’ve been like, and when those bittersweet visions of the impossible ended, he turned his mind towards vengeance. Retribution would soon fall on all those that worshiped Orange sector. Joe stood up and began walking back, the tools he left behind next to the rubble. He wouldn’t need those anymore. Halfway to the tents, he saw what he would need and bent down to grab it. The sharp edges of the composite chunk made a scraping noise as he ran his protected finger across it.
“Yes,” Joe said quietly, “this will do.”
The camp had a few lights still on, one of which was Chance’s, the other belonged to Samantha, their mapping expert. Joe got close to the entrance of her tent and tapped two soft taps on the lightweight structure’s door. Joe was invited in without question, and he stepped inside, closing the door behind him. As Samantha turned to walk to her work station, Joe kicked her right leg and made her fall to the ground. Before she could ask any questions, Joe drove the sharpened piece into her visor. It went through the protective glass with frightening ease. The woman’s left eye socket was pierced, and her arms flailed twice, then she ceased to move forever. Joe drew his makeshift weapon out and watched as Samantha’s skin began to slowly turn ashen. Her remaining eye became all white in a few minutes, then her lips turned purple and finally black. The contagion was called the black kiss, according to the voice of Joe’s father. Joe saw why they’d chosen that name. He kept sitting on the ground for a few more minutes until the ashen skin began to flake off, revealing discolored muscle, and finally, the white bone below. Joe’s hands and body were frozen in place. He expected to have a violent reaction, to feel guilt or panic. Something at least, whatever that may be. As he searched his soul, however, he only found the old anger and a new hunger for violence against all from Orange sector.
Slowly, he stood up and left the tent. Seven more stops later, Chance was the last enemy left alive. Joe knocked on the door and was let inside as always. Without waiting, he smashed the jagged edge of his composite into Chance’s visor. This time he kept the edge away from the man's flesh. Chance was going to serve as a gauge for Joe to determine just how much time the contagion took to kill a living person. Chance panicked for a few moments, then composed himself and rushed Joe, who was barring the door. The composite dug into Chance’s shoulder and he fell back landing on the ground. He tried to get up, but Joe raised his weapon in demonstration. Chance’s head began to bob up and down, his eyes shifted from corner to corner, trying to find a way out, but there was none. Just as those from Orange sector had collapsed the buildings on top of Joe’s parents, so was Chance trapped as well. Joe knelt down in front of the door and watched as Chance began to waste away. Twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds later, he was dead. Chance endured no small amount of pain, and past minute ten, all he could do was scream for Joe to kill him. Joe did not oblige and continued to observe. Ten minutes would be enough for Joe. He dropped his weapon and went outside. Soon he was out of the sector and into the corridor leading to Orange. Rubble was strewn all across the ground, and as he passed the final toppled column on the way, he saw the warding tree. Stopping right in front of it, Joe reached towards his back and grabbed the upper portion of the Orange circle there. Overriding the suit's functions, his helmet hissed open, and he drew in a deep breath from the stale air, which smelled like blood and ruin. He felt the pain almost immediately. His nerves began to scream and curse him. The skin on his face dried and began to feel brittle. Joe removed his hand from the circle and left it by his side, the helmet crawled up and encased his face once again.
He stepped over the boundary and began walking towards his “home” complex. As his vision began to blur and the pain was almost too unbearable, he saw a lively street greet him. He smiled inside his helmet as he joined the river of people. Here, among his enemies, the pain was almost gone and was replaced by elation. He raised both of his arms and put them on the disk of light that was on his back. With a mighty pull, he tore it free from his suit. The helmet bloomed open, and Joe spread his miasma of death all around as he collapsed to the ground.
Writing prompt source and artist picture:https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/elxyc8/ip_at_last_im_home/