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Pickering could be a problem, Tench had said.

Administrator Ekstrom was too preoccupied with this new information to notice that the storm outside the habisphere was raging harder now. The howling cables had increased in pitch, and the NASA staff was nervously milling and chatting rather than going to sleep. Ekstrom’s thoughts were lost in a different storm‑an explosive tempest brewing back in Washington. The last few hours had brought many problems, all of which Ekstrom was trying to deal with. And yet one problem now loomed larger than all the others combined.

Pickering could be a problem.

Ekstrom could think of no one on earth against whom he’d less rather match wits than William Pickering. Pickering had ridden Ekstrom and NASA for years now, trying to control privacy policy, lobbying for different mission priorities, and railing against NASA’s escalating failure ratio.

Pickering’s disgust with NASA, Ekstrom knew, went far deeper than the recent loss of his billion‑dollar NRO SIGINT satellite in a NASA launchpad explosion, or the NASA security leaks, or the battle over recruiting key aerospace personnel. Pickering’s grievances against NASA were an ongoing drama of disillusionment and resentment.

NASA’s X‑33 space plane, which was supposed to be the shuttle replacement, had run five years overdue, meaning dozens of NRO satellite maintenance and launch programs were scrapped or put on hold. Recently, Pickering’s rage over the X‑33 reached a fever pitch when he discovered NASA had canceled the project entirely, swallowing an estimated $900 million loss.

Ekstrom arrived at his office, pulled the curtain aside, and entered. Sitting down at his desk he put his head in his hands. He had some decisions to make. What had started as a wonderful day was becoming a nightmare unraveling around him. He tried to put himself in the mindset of William Pickering. What would the man do next? Someone as intelligent as Pickering had to see the importance of this NASA discovery. He had to forgive certain choices made in desperation. He had to see the irreversible damage that would be done by polluting this moment of triumph.

What would Pickering do with the information he had? Would he let it ride, or would he make NASA pay for their shortcomings?

Ekstrom scowled, having little doubt which it would be.

After all, William Pickering had deeper issues with NASA . . . an ancient personal bitterness that went far deeper than politics.