Project Hail Mary

Page 60

“Mr. E—”

“Torch!” Easton said, holding out his hand.

His assistant handed over a small flashlight. He clicked it on. “Please open your mouth wide, Ms. Stratt. I need to check for contraband.”

Whoa boy. I stepped forward before this got any worse. “I’ll go first!” I opened my mouth wide.

Easton shined the light into my mouth and looked this way and that. “You’re clear.”

Stratt just glared at him.

He held the flashlight at the ready. “I can get a female guard in here and order a much more thorough search if you like.”

For a few seconds, she did nothing. Then she pulled her Taser from its holster and handed it over.

She must have been tired. I’d never seen her give up on a power trip before. Though, I also hadn’t seen her get into a useless peeing contest before either. She had a lot of authority and wasn’t afraid to flex when needed, but she usually wasn’t one to argue when a simple solution was present.

Soon, guards escorted Stratt and me through the cold, gray walls of the prison.

“What the heck is wrong with you?” I said.

“I don’t like little dictators in their little kingdoms,” she said. “Drives me crazy.”

“You can bend a little once in a while.”

“I’m out of patience and the world is out of time.”

I held up a finger. “No, no, no! You can’t just use ‘I’m saving the world’ as an excuse every time you’re a jerk.”

She thought it over. “Yeah, okay. You may have a point.”

We followed the guards down a long corridor to the Maximum Security Unit.

“Maximum security seems like overkill,” she said.

“Seven people died,” I reminded her. “Because of him.”

“It was accidental.”

“It was criminal negligence. He deserves what he got.”

The guards led us around a corner. We followed along. The whole place was a maze.

“Why bring me here at all?”


“As always.” I sighed. “Can’t say I like this.”


We entered a stark room containing a single metal table. On one side sat a prisoner in a bright-orange jumpsuit. A balding man in his late forties, maybe early fifties. He was handcuffed to the table. He didn’t look anything like a threat.

Stratt and I sat down opposite him. The guards closed the door behind us.

The man looked at us. He tilted his head slightly, waiting for someone to speak.

“Dr. Robert Redell,” Stratt said.

“Call me Bob,” he said.

“I’ll call you Dr. Redell.” She pulled a file out of her briefcase and looked it over. “You’re currently serving a life sentence for seven counts of culpable homicide.”

“That’s their excuse for me being here, yes,” he said.

I piped up. “Seven people died on your rig. Because of your negligence. Seems like a pretty good ‘excuse’ for you to be here.”

He shook his head. “Seven people died because the control room didn’t follow procedure and activated a primary pumping station while workers were still in the reflector tower. It was a horrible accident, but it was an accident.”

“Enlighten us, then,” I said. “If the deaths at your solar farm weren’t your fault, why are you here?”

“Because the government thinks I embezzled millions of dollars.”

“And why do they think that?” I asked.

“Because I embezzled millions of dollars.” He adjusted his shackled wrists into a more comfortable position. “But that had nothing to do with the deaths. Nothing!”

“Tell me about your blackpanel power idea,” Stratt said.

“Blackpanel?” He drew back. “It was just an idea. I emailed that anonymously.”

Stratt rolled her eyes. “Do you really think email sent from a prison computer lab is anonymous?”

He looked away. “I’m not a computer guy. I’m an engineer.”

“I want to hear more about blackpanel,” she said. “And if I like what I hear, it could reduce your jail time. So start talking.”

He perked up. “Well…I mean…okay. What do you know about solar thermal power?”

Stratt looked at me.

“Uh,” I said. “It’s when you have a whole bunch of mirrors set up to reflect sunlight to the top of a tower. If you get a few hundred square meters of mirror focusing all that sunlight onto a single point, you can heat up water, make it boil, and run a turbine.”

I turned to Stratt. “But that’s not new. Heck, there’s a fully functional solar thermal power plant in Spain right now. If you want to know about it, talk to them.”

She silenced me with a hand motion. “And that’s what you were making for New Zealand?”

“Well,” he said. “It was funded by New Zealand. But the idea was to provide power for Africa.”

“Why would New Zealand pay a bunch of money to help Africa?” I asked.

“Because we’re nice,” Redell said.

“Wow,” I said. “I know New Zealand is pretty cool but—”

“And it was going to be a New Zealand–owned company that charged for the power,” Redell said.

“There it is.”

He leaned forward. “Africa needs infrastructure. To do that, they need power. And they have nine million square kilometers of useless land that gets some of the most intense continuous sunlight on Earth. The Sahara Desert is just sitting there, waiting to give them everything they need. All we needed to do was build the damn power plants!”

He flopped back in his chair. “But every local government wanted a piece of the pie. Graft, bribes, payoffs, you name it. You think I embezzled a lot? Shit, that’s nothing compared to what I had to pay in bribes just to build a solar plant in the middle of fucking nowhere.”

“And then?” Stratt said.

He looked at his shoes. “We built a pilot plant—one square kilometer of mirror area. All of it focused on a large metal drum full of water on top of a tower. Boil the water, run a turbine, you know the drill. I had a crew checking the drum for leaks. When anyone’s in the tower, the mirrors are supposed to be angled away. But someone in the control room fired up the whole system when they thought they were starting a virtual test.”

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