[This is going to be another short one, probably 4 parts. I'd just wait until it was done and put it up all at once, except that I love to torment you. I am a mean man, yes. :D]
The relentless Nebraska wind danced dust devils across the parking lot. Bash chose to take that as a good omen. A sign in miniature of greater things to come. He climbed onto the hood of the radar truck and raised his arms for attention.
"Hey, y'all!" he shouted. "Welcome to Helix 4!"
The answering cheer was nearly unanimous. Good to know everyone wanted to be here, considering how hard it'd been to choose among the applications.
"I see a lot of new faces this year," he went on. "Some of you I know by reputation, and I look forward to meeting the rest. I'm Sebastian Ryan, your chief meteorologist; you can call me Bash. I was planning to go through and introduce all the teams and stuff, but due to all the delays it's getting pretty late and we have an early start tomorrow. So for now I'm just going to give you the shotgun version of my traditional pep talk."
A groan or two from the veterans of previous seasons. He knew they only did it to make him feel special.
"If I tell you stormchasing's dangerous, you're gonna nod and think you know what I mean, but the truth is nobody here fully understands the risks. You can tell because we're all still alive. What you probably do know is how excited you get when you're close to a big one, or you're close to getting that perfect shot or that perfect launch. And there's the temptation to get just a little closer, stay just a little longer, make sure you don't miss this one because who knows when there'll be a next one. Right?"
"Do not fucking do that."
That got a snort of understanding from Rudy Bao, his longtime chase buddy, and a couple of chuckles from other vets who knew what he was talking about.
"The other point I want to touch on is just how stupid expensive all this is. You know how much your project is costing you. Assume yours is the cheapest of the bunch and everybody else is bleeding funding even faster. Any time you hold up your convoy, any time your equipment's not working, you're late or you get lost or you just plain can't pull it together, you're tapping someone else's money vein as well as your own.
"So you need to be ready to set your own plan aside if it's not working at the moment, and jump in and help somebody else. If you can't keep up, or you're going to miss a rendezvous, you need to call me or whoever's chief of your convoy that day so we can work around you.
"I know your project's important, I know you're trying to save lives as well as gain knowlege, but you have to remember -- so is everybody else. So I don't want to see any showboating out there."
Not everybody liked that, but he got the impression they objected to the lack of whee-here-we-go enthusiasm rather than to the caution. That was fine. There would be plenty of whee later on.
"Okay, that's it. Like I said, we have an early morning, some promising conditions coming up in West Texas and that's a long drive, so let's get to bed. Tomorrow we start what I know is gonna be an awesome chase season!"
He heard a few fairly enthusiastic 'yeah's as he hopped down to the pavement. Rudy stepped to his side and said 'hooah!' and bumped knuckles with him. They had decided years ago that stormchasers were like the Marine Corps of the nerd world, and though they'd never admit it, they were only 90% joking about that. Bash hooked an elbow over Rudy's shoulder. Together they surveyed the dispersing group.
"So," Bash said quietly once they had enough space around them for private conversation. "Who's that sweet little thang with the Iowa State bunch? You know him?"
"The cute one."
"Hello, straight here. Not a connoisseur."
"Cute little guy. Like five six, maybe. Big dark eyes. Big haunted fawn eyes," he expanded, falling into a corny hush. "Like some hunted forest creature."
"Oh, him. That's --" Rudy paused to snort a laugh. "Dude. That's Cory Wallace." Another laugh, this one building up a bit.
Bash vaguely remembered that name from the time of application-culling, but that'd been months ago. "Explain more."
Rudy shook his head, grinning. "Haunted doelike eyes. Jesus." He ducked from under Bash's arm and started to walk away.
"Hey! What's so funny about him?"
Rudy just waved goodbye without turning around.
Bash gave up with a shrug. He'd find out soon enough, he guessed. They were all going to be in each other's pockets for the next two months. Plenty of time to find out what the joke was.
It only took eighteen hours.
"LFA, I need you to come north on 87," Bash repeated for the third time, and for the third time waited for a reply.
His eyes flicked between the radar screens in front of him and the black mass of cloud out the left side window. Rudy, in the driver's seat, had his radio set to recieve all the convoy's channels, and there was some cross-talk from up there, but Bash's headset was silent.
"LFA," he tried again. "Dr. Wallace. Cory. Are you guys okay?"
"Yeah, we're good," came the answer at last.
"Okay, I need you to come north --"
"That's a negative, Command. We're staying put."
Bash chose not to grind his teeth. Way too early to be getting emotional. "You need to come north if you want to intercept, and my name's not Command."
"We have visual on tornado precursors here, there's a hell of a wall cloud and there's definite rotation, so we're gonna --"
"You're gonna miss it is what you're gonna do," Bash interrupted. "You got nothing over there. All the action's moving north."
No reply. The Linked Flight Array team didn't want to hear it.
"Whatever," Bash muttered. Not into the radio. He knew by the end of the season he'd be about as detached and professional as a half-drunk high-schooler, but there was no need to hurry it.
He switched over to the other team in his convoy, the Bluebird UAV probe guys, to talk them through the rendezvous. Let LFA miss it. Their loss.
Around the time the radar truck, the Bluebird truck, and their two chase vehicles were hunkered down on a gravel road with a huge black funnel crossing half a mile ahead of them -- adrenaline coursing through Bash's veins, blood pounding, fingers tingling, an arousal that was nearly sexual -- he heard the LFA team's radio chatter under the roar of the storm:
"No, it's totally roped out. It's gone."
"Fuck, I was sure it was gonna build."
"We shoulda gone north."
Once the rush was past, he mentally reviewed what he'd heard, and found it good. He couldn't have come up with a better object lesson if he'd designed it himself. Now Cory knew what the radar was for, and he'd listen to Bash from now on.
Wrong. The next day Cory listened, but only so he could argue. "That's too far ahead of it," he protested. "By the time we get the probes down it'll have veered off somewhere."
"That's as close as I can put you," Bash snapped, annoyed at having to defend his decisions while juggling GPS coordinates for six trucks in three locations and watching a tornadic supercell toy with the idea of dropping a second funnel.
"There's a driveway thing here, we're gonna take it."
"No. LFA, are you listening? Stay on course. Oh for crying out loud." Bash switched over to the Bluebird team. "Bluebird, what do you see?"
"We're in position now, Heidi's setting up the catapult, we're two minutes to launch. Tell me we have two minutes."
"You might not. Do me a favor, look to your south-southeast, what's going on in the sky over there?"
"Uhhh... whoa. Yeah, 'nother funnel coming down, and I think... shit. Condensation on the ground. We have a second tornado."
"Get out of there, Bluebird."
"We're real close to launch --"
"Up stakes and haul ass!" He flipped back to LFA's channel. "Cory, what's your position?"
"We're on a little dirt road about half a mile west of you --"
"Jesus. Okay, you need to move, there's a second tornado and it's like right in your backyard there."
"Yeah, I see it. I think I can nail it."
Bash lost several precious seconds just choking on that. "NO," he roared into the radio. "Goddamnit, move!"
"Still dropping probes, just a sec."
"Oh my god. You're too stupid to live." His exasperation was quickly turning into nausea. The only reason he didn't stay on the line screaming at them was because Bluebird was in just as much danger. "Bluebird, talk to me."
"-- gotta move holy shit punch it punch it!"
"Bluebird! Are you clear?"
"Oh wow. Uh. Yeah. Yeah, we're -- it's crossing -- yeah, we're clear, it's crossing south. The second one. It went behind us. First one's moving parallel to the road, looks like maybe a mile west of us."
"Okay, that's gonna come east -- and the second, it's weakening but don't count on that. You'll be coming up on a county road just ahead, turn east on that, get some distance."
"Gotcha. Damn. We would've had a perfect launch on the first one."
"Keep visual on it if you can." Pulse throbbing in his back teeth, he tried LFA again. "Cory, where are you?"
His stomach turned over. His mind's eye tried to distract him with a slideshow of horrors he'd seen over the years (driving through a junkyard that was a town ten minutes ago, creeping around a downed power line, chattering to Rudy about where they should look for the next twister, and then suddenly in the middle of the road there was a fucking leg, thigh sliced cleanly on the diagonal like a goddamn sushi roll) but he slammed himself back to the present with gritted teeth.
Maybe Dr. Wallace and his two grad students were minced up with chunks of the LFA truck and spread across six acres of soybeans. Or maybe Cory was just being a pain in the ass again. In neither scenario did panicking help.
Bash leaned forward to get a better view out the windshield. Rudy didn't like having Bash hanging over his shoulder while he was driving, but Bash thought they might be able to spot the LFA truck and its support vehicle pretty soon. If they were still there.
Every ten seconds or so he tried the radio again. There was no other chatter. It was like the whole convoy was holding its breath. He saw an old barn with a chunk bitten out of its roof. He saw several trees down. He saw a speck of red, and prayed it was the LFA, and that it was right side up.
His earpiece crackled. "Mission failed, Houston. The bitch dodged us. The probes didn't deploy."
Bash heaved a sigh, slumping back into his chair. If he'd been standing, his knees would've given out. "You owe me a drink, you jackass," he growled. "And my name's not fucking Houston either."
Cory laughed until Bash cut the radio.
The first motel they stopped at didn't have enough room for all of them, but while Rudy was finding that out, the X-ray Imaging Project van stalled out in the parking lot and wouldn't start again, so Bash made the executive decision to stay anyway.
"It's forty minutes to the next closest hotel," he told the other convoy heads as they clustered on the wet pavement with their baggage, "it's like quarter to eleven, we're all totally tapped out, and if we leave the X-ray guys behind that's more stuff to coordinate tomorrow. We can just scrunch up."
"Easy for you to say," grumbled Alan Edwards, the only team leader without a PhD. "You get the big room."
"The whole radar posse and a herd of laptops get the big room. If I even get to sleep at all --" He realized he was whining and cut himself off, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You seriously want to get back in that truck and go looking for North Flyspeck, Texas, in the middle of the night?"
"No, I just don't want to sleep with Carl."
An exhausted giggle escaped Bash's lungs. "Why are you telling me that? Do I look like Dan Savage?"
Rudy gave a hoot of laughter. "You kind of do, actually."
Flattered, Bash made a mental note to let Rudy have his way with the AC tonight, even if it meant sweltering in his skivvies on the floor.
He crowded into the motel's only suite with the rest of the prediction crew, but he handed off his computer to Mercy Kawamura the moment she had her hands free. "Get me set up, will you? I have to do something." He turned to Rudy. "Where's Wallace? I am going to go High Plains Drifter on that sonofabitch."
Rudy quirked an eyebrow as he brought up the room assignments on his organizer. "You going to shoot him, paint him red, or rape him in a barn?"
"Possibly all of the above, although not in that order."
"LFA's in... 106. Three down from us that way. And remember: pics or it didn't happen."
"I might just take wind speed readings," Bash threw over his shoulder as he went out again.
Before the door closed, he heard Rudy call after him, "Get seismic data if you do the barn thing!"