"Hey - look at that!"
"Look at what Jack -oh. Holy crap - how did a hundred feet of chain link fence end up atop a grove of trees?"
"You two find something?" Al shouted.
"Yeah," Mary replied, "a fence in a tree."
"Figures, I thought we'd come across something like that soon. We're close."
"Close to what?"
"You'll see when we get over the ridge."
The older man caught up to his younger proteges, then took the lead, keeping a steady march ahead. Seventy-five wasn't too old with nano-treatments, but he usually looked like someone who'd be collecting dust rather than exploring.Injected robots could could tighten up skin and reshape corneas to return vision, but Al insisted on old wire rim glasses and keeping the folds. Most people wouldn't trust someone who insisted on looking their age, but somehow this man had made with transition from accountant to wilderness guide with little trouble, and was respected for that.
Suddenly the land changed, from pine forest to moonscape. What had been a fairly level area was now pocked with small craters, chunks or rock, and shards of metal lying in most of them. Many of the standing trees were burned, but many others were dead at odd angles, or simply snapped like twigs.Grass and shrubs were beginning to reappear, but it would be decades until this fire damage would be repaired.
As they continued to walk further on, the devastation grew worse. More and more debris. Even the restoring plants thinned out, as if the soil was striped away. Little dust devils played across the ground shifting what little dirt remained into mounds on the windward sides of man sized chunks of scorched concrete.
And then they saw the main crater. Nearly a quarter kilometer across, scorched earth and melted rock forty meters down at the bottom. Like god had left a thumbprint on the world.
"It used to be the James Webb space facility. That oddly circular hole over there is part of the underground track portion that gave payloads their initial acceleration. What you're not seeing is the big laser that would then give them a boost. It would give a series of rapid pulses - vaporizing fuel left on the bottom of a pusher plate to maintain speed after the payload had been shot up by the electro-mag catapult. Doesn't work so well for people, but since it eliminates the rocket,that meant the most expensive and wasteful part of the launch was gone too. The reactor is a good thirty miles north, and underground to boot - just in case something decided not to go all the way up.
"How do you know all this?" Mary asked
"I was an accountant. For the utility company that supported all this. If I got paid a quarter of what they put out for kilowatts, I'd have been a very rich man."
"I take it something went wrong with the last launch..."
"Hell no! What did I just say? No rocket, no several tons of highly explosive fuel. It was the damned aliens. We needed a way to take down those space ships, and shooting them with Anti-satellite weapons was like trying to bring down a bull moose with a .22. Might be a rifle, but you don't take a caliber that doesn't begin with a "4" into a gunfight you know. As you can tell from exploding rockets - the better a propulsion system, the more spectacular the damage it can inflict. Someone noticed that we had a several hundred megawatt laser that could lift a few dozen metric tons to high orbit and vaporize space junk. Actually managed to destroy some aliens with it. Then the shrimp used one of their mass drivers since you can't really hide or move a facility like this. Get a projectile going fast enough, and you don't need explosives. Hell, get it fast enough and you don't need f-kn' plutonium. All this, and a Geiger-counter doesn't jump up a notch.
"This is all well and good" Jack interrupted "But it doesn't have any bearing on why we hired you."
"I'd check the Sphere about that."
"We're in the middle of nowhere, and what was here was destroyed... hey - I'm getting pings."
"Those weren't here last year. I think someone is taking advantage of the surviving underground maintenance areas, or searching for the reactor complex. They might be the people you're looking for."
"Do you know any way in?"
"A couple, some of which may require access to the reactor facility, and all of which are going to cost extra."