Thunder Moon Tussle, Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Thirty-three years after Yellowstone Eruption Event (Y+33)

After all the effort of loading in supplies, Nils wanted to leave Conrad Lunar Station for his own habitat. But the airlock would not pressurize. It prevented Nils's crawler from detaching and driving away across the lunar surface. In fact, his instruments showed the airlock had been over-pressurized. It ensured potential damage to the crawler if he forced detachment. It could destroy the airlock. Blatant damage to the airlock would likely lead to criminal charges.

Nils disliked breaking the law, and he hated outright destruction. He needed a damn-good reason. Besides, his crawler held more value to him than the inconvenience of being locked to the station. Though a simple enclosed wheeled vehicle, it gave Nils significant freedom and mobility. The batteries allowed seventy-two hours of vehicle use during the long lunar night. A few recharges extended his activity to the whole two-weeks of night. It was versatile enough to handle prospecting, but it served well enough for smuggling. Smuggling goods was one act of lawlessness he felt justified in doing, but destroying the airlock was questionable. His suspicions about the airlock failure might justify risking the forced detachment. Regardless, Nils held back.

Nils switched to the station communications channel. "Crawler at airlock 14b, Nils Carmike ready for undock." He quipped. Nils listened for the reply, hoping for what he did not expect. A reasonable explanation. The best answer he could have expected was technical difficulties with the airlock. He understood such an answer was nothing short of miraculous.

As much as he did not want to admit, he knew the reason for the problem. It came in the form of a tall-curvaceous deputy sheriff that seemed intent upon making Nils's life hell. Her name was Miller. Likely, Deputy Miller expected a payoff, thinking Nils had been holding out. She arranged the loading inspection to ensure it. She often discovered his latest dealings. His business usually involved some minor smuggled goods between the station and other lunar outposts. But this time, he carried supplies for his habitat. It mattered little to Deputy Miller. She always found some violation.  This would be the same, requiring him to cough up some of his hard-earned cash. Deputy Miller was behind the airlock problems.

"Crawler at 14b, we've had a request from CSSD to hold you for inspection. Standby," said the male voice that Nils did not recognize. It likely belonged to another Lunadyne new hire as part of the support staff for Conrad Station. More and more recent hires arrived every day. The influx usually meant more mining–and mining was good for everyone’s business.

Nils did not care. Deputy Miller would soon enter the crawler for inspection.  With her, everything else took a back seat.  Miller, to his mind, was one step short of the Yellowstone apocalypse.

“Standing by–” His eyes darted over the load of supplies in the crawler. He lacked any time to get rid of any questionable item.  Miller always turned any such item into a serious fine.

Luckily, he saw nothing. It did not matter. Miller would find something she could put in a bad light. It would cost. Hopefully, it would not be too much.

Nils punched in the commands, placing the crawler in safe mode, and released the airlock controls for general usage. He recalled the thrill of not releasing them some time back. Miller had stormed through Conrad Station while he had ignored all communications for three hours and took a nap. He knew that antagonizing her represented one of his worst ideas, but he had not wanted to bother with her loading inspection.

Now, he considered resetting the airlock controls again to leave deputy Miller without access. Nils opted against it, thinking a replay of the joke would lead to disaster. He had been on Miller's shit list for the past few weeks. Another joke at her expense would backfire. He hoped that compliance with the inspection would win him a reprieve. Though hopeful, he realized his doubts. With Deputy Miller, he never caught a break.

"Stand by for inspection," he heard Miller's voice on the Station Communications line, giving him a thrill and a dreadful feeling at the same moment.

"Yup," Nils mustered his best cheerful voice. "I've got the manifest already on my pad."

Nils waited in silence, hoping she made this easy but fearing the truth. She never made it easy. The last time, she made him sit for about twenty minutes. He imagined her feigning to work up some report while she killed some time to ensure he got agitated. He went through a gambit of emotions while he waited.

Nils opened the crawler door to the airlock, waiting for Deputy Miller to enter and begin the inspection. He handed her the pad with the manifest documents, hoping she would find everything in order.

"Okay, Nils." She said, setting down the manifest on the control panel. "What sort of restricted junk do you have hidden this week?"

"Nothing," he answered, knowing Miller would not believe him. She looked as stunning as ever, he observed. Every curve worked to her benefit. Nils could not think of a woman that exuded both physical toughness and stunning sensuality as Deputy Miller. She wore her deputy uniform with her reddish brunette hair tied back. Her sunglasses tilted back on her head. His palms sweated as her eyes flashed seductively while scanning the interior of the crawler.

“So,” Miller said after taking a survey of the crawler’s interior, “How much are you holding out on me?”

“What do you mean?” Nils fumed, realizing that she was after his money once again.

“Come on,” she rolled her eyes. “Do we have to go through this every time?”

“Uh,” Nils wanted to strangle her. How does she always know? He wondered.

“I ain't got nothing,” he said defiantly.

“Someone paid you to collect some rocks.” She moved toward him. “I get my ten.”

Nils handed her the ten percent amounting to a couple hundred bucks. Miller pocketed the cash but turned to the row of cabinets lining the left side of the crawler. She opened one cabinet, revealing a crumpled and soiled set of coveralls. She dragged them out of the locker with the tip of her night-stick, dropping them to the floor. Next, she pulled open the drawer, revealing Nils’s shaving equipment. She upended the drawer, sending the razor and accessories scattering over the floor. She opened another cabinet.

“What are you after, Miller?” He seethed with irritation, restraining himself from the desire to strangle her.

“Your crawler is a mess.” She dumped the accessories for Nils’s survey equipment locker onto the floor.

“Careful with those!”

“You shouldn't be such a slob.”

“What the hell, Miller?” Nils grumbled, wanting her to finish. He knew that intervening in her actions usually ended poorly, so he sat quietly through the invasion.

Recently, he hoped that Deputy Miller would lose interest in him before he died in some accident. He revised his estimation of his accidental death, as the statistics showed that the Moon was becoming safer. In the meantime, he consoled himself with looking at her gorgeous figure. He hated how she treated him, though he enjoyed watching her as she moved within the crawler.

Nils watched Deputy Miller as she finally paused from dragging his junk out of the cabinets.

“Find anything?” He asked sarcastically, knowing she had found nothing strictly illegal.  He had been careful and made sure she would never find the contraband.

“Fourteen health and safety code violations.” She pulled out her pad and wrote the citation.

“Only fourteen,” he mumbled. He had been through it all before. She tore the crawler apart, looking for some violation. He protested. She pretended to write the citation. He complained. She made a deal for cash.

It’s the price of doing business, he thought.

It was a well-choreographed dance, and he knew his part. On cue, he asked, “How much this time Miller?”

She stalled for a while, looking at the pad and frowning. Miller had some other deviousness in her head. It might prevent him from meeting his expenses because of a larger fraction ending up in her pocket. She put the pad away in a cargo pocket and looked at him with those eyes he found so appealing.

“Come-on, Miller.” He feigned impatience. “How much?”

“I need a favor,” she at last stated. A slight smile crossed her lips.

Shit, he thought, this will cost a fortune.

“I have to admit that you've surprised me,” he said after a moment.

Nils looked at Deputy Miller, trying to ignore her gorgeous eyes. He barely believed he considered her terms.  If he opted to ignore her offer, the fine would be steep.  But he knew her.  Agreeing was like agreeing to a tooth extraction.

“Damn it, Miller.” He grumbled, focusing on the mess on the floor of the crawler instead of her. “What favor?”

“I can't tell you here,” she answered, her face showing a slight frown.

“Well, let’s go inside to the bar–”

Here, meaning Conrad Station.” Deputy Miller glanced back at the airlock.

Nils sat stunned for a moment, taking it all in. His nemesis wanted to drive away from Conrad Station so she could ask a favor. He considered for a moment.

Does she want to drive off a few meters or kilometers? Does she have a destination in mind?

“Where to?” He cautiously asked.

“Cycle the airlock,” she answered, obviously not wanting to say more.

She opened the foldout bench that doubled as a cot and sat down as Nils closed the airlock. He did not miss the suggestion of her sitting in a bed. But one look from her convinced him she just wanted it as a seat. She had asked for a favor, and he wondered what she wanted.

He shut the station airlock and closed the crawler’s hatch, making it possible to detach regardless of the pressure in the station. Nils closed the airlock and moved up to the console. He opted to override most of the robotic driving and handled it himself. Partly, he operated the controls since he lacked a destination for the auto-drive, and partly so he could keep his eyes off Deputy Miller. He drove the crawler away from the station proper. Steering with ease, he navigated around the buildings and headed toward the station ramp to get out of the shallow crater.

“Where too?” He asked, glancing over his shoulder at her.

“Just drive,” she murmured as though she had something else on her mind and did not want any interruptions.

“Sure,” Nils turned toward the western exit from the crater, and the road toward his habitat, some ten kilometers distant to the south-east. He thought better of driving off on a fresh track somewhere and stopping. In principle, it would work, but he did not want to fall into an unknown sink hole–leaving himself and Miller trapped in the crawler. She would likely make sure his life would be over if the accident failed to kill them.

Gordonville, a lunar settlement thirty kilometers to the west, represented another option. They could easily make the journey. But it was a relatively unknown location to Nils. Though he performed some jobs for people from Gordonville, they would never ask him to meet anywhere but at Conrad Station. Gordonville represented civilization. Many of the residents would not want Nils or his business to enter their community. Though he promoted being a simple prospector, his reputation as a drunk storyteller assaulted the sensibilities of the civilized community.

His habitat, and the well-known track to it, represented the safest place to go. Hopefully, Deputy Miller would not get the wrong idea.

Nils drove the crawler silently for a while. He did not want to risk saying much of anything, fearing that she would see right through him. He could make stuff up to entertain. An outright lie was different. Miller saw right through it.

After about ten minutes of driving, Nils realized she became quiet. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing her leaned back in the seat with her eyes closed. Her precarious grip on her pad made him realize she had fallen asleep.