Part 3

Two hours into a six hour drive, Rudy reached over and unplugged Bash's iPod right in the middle of 'Nasty Habits'. "Hand me mine. Your music is making me feel old."

Bash, in the passenger seat, didn't look up from his laptop.

"It's in my bag by your feet," Rudy added. "Bash. No more Oingo Boingo. I'm serious."

"Can't talk, stalking."

"That's unusual." Not sarcasm. It was unusual.

"Cory went out of his way to let me know he read my blog, so I feel I should return the favor."

Rudy sighed. "Wonderful. Oh, I'm looking forward to this." That was sarcasm.

"Bitch, please. You've watched me perv on the grad students for years. Why is this dire?"

"Because you're too professional to bang a student, but this could actually happen, which is a very frightening thought. Before you get so deeply involved in your schoolgirl crush that you can no longer form non-Cory-related thoughts, please exchange your music player for mine, thank you."

Bash did. He was capable of identifying those times when a friendship required maintenance, and Rudy was never unfairly demanding in that respect. "What playlist do you want?"

"Let's have 'Latin' for a while."

Salsa music filled the cab. Bash went back to combing the internet.

"I suppose," Rudy said after a few minutes, "you've already tried and failed to discover why I laughed when you noticed him."

"His behavior speaks for itself," Bash said absently, "but there is the question of how you knew beforehand. I suspect Melanie Starmore warned you. I know you follow her work, and she co-authored a paper with him last year..." He switched windows until he found the list of Cory's publications he'd brought up for a second look. "Periodic Oscillations In Offshore Storm Surge Magnitude. He does love those low pressure effects. I should make more suction jokes. Anyway, in her otherwise glowing referral letter, she described him as 'sometimes difficult to supervise'. She was probably a little more expressive with you in email."

"Remarkable, Holmes," Rudy grinned. "Yeah, she said she practically had to sedate him to get him into a safety harness, which he needed because he refused to stay off the deck even when the boat was pitching around like a bath toy. I believe the word 'deathwish' was used at least twice."

"If I were a sane person, that would not be sexy to me."

That got a proper laugh out of Rudy. "If you were a sane person, you'd be forecasting on TV for a six-figure salary, not risking your life for peanuts. I still hope you ripped him a new one last night. He can't be pulling these stunts on the federal dime. He could get the whole study shitcanned."

"He won't do it anymore."

Rudy was silent long enough that Bash straightened up to look at him. He met eyebrow-raised suspicion. "I find it hard to believe you managed to scare him, considering an F3 tapping him on the shoulder just gave him the giggles."

"Oh, I scared him."

"How?"

"First, I let him make his death-before-dishonor pitch. Then I painted him a picture of death and dishonor. That got his attention."

"What's that without the metaphor?"

"He just needed someone to listen while he explained how really seriously important his project is, and how he's willing to die to get the data, because it will save hundreds of lives. Which it will, and he's right, and I agree. But if he's not careful he could do the opposite of what he wants. Wreck his equipment and our reputation and not get results. He heard me. We're cool now."

Rudy made a thoughtful little humming noise. "Well, you are a better supervisor than Melanie. She gets frazzled and makes flappy-hands. Which is adorable, by the way. And you should see her in a wetsuit, oh my god."

"Gay here," Bash grinned. "Not a connoisseur."

.

They stopped outside of Wichita to gas up. Refueling four convoys of six vehicles each was not a quick operation, even split up between three different gas stations. Bash had plenty of time to linger over coffee and pie in a truckstop café and catch up on the day's developments.

Not that there were many developments to catch up on. The raging dryline that had given them such a beautiful start in Texas was now barely a gradient, too wet in the west and too dry in the east to spawn anything good. Thus the northward trend of the road trip today; he had a feeling the weak cold front pushing down across the Dakotas might make something of that widespread warm moisture tomorrow, probably in southern Nebraska. The latest data didn't change his mind.

A shadow fell over him. "What's the skinny?"

Bash froze. Cory's voice, right in his ear, and the smell of him, dust and sweat and gasoline and hotel soap should not be a sexy smell but oh god it was -- "Nothing new really," he croaked.

Cory leaned over his shoulder, soft shaggy hair brushing Bash's cheek, and reached past him to touch the laptop screen. "That might do something."

"Tomorrow, maybe. If it doesn't rain itself out overnight. Slow as it's going, it might not meet enough moisture fast enough."

"I remain optimistic." His breath was warm on Bash's cheek, and if Bash were to turn his head about thirty degrees to the left... "With temperatures like those, you don't need shower steam to get enough CAPE for a proper blowdown."

In a futile attempt at ego-preservation, Bash tried for skepticism. "And what exactly is a proper blowdown?"

"Twenty bucks, same as in town." Laughing to himself, Cory straightened up and walked away.

When he climbed into the truck, Bash gave Rudy soulful puppy eyes. "I have the crush that ate Tokyo," he confessed.

"I have a three-pound package of Gummi Bears." Rudy displayed it next to his beaming face, cleaning-product-commercial style. "It's a road trip adventure in a bag!"

.

By the next morning, that cold front was spawning big, slow-moving storm cells on a long curve from southwestern Nebraska all the way up into central Minnesota.

Too many storms for long-lasting tornadoes. They interfered with each other's inflow. Good news for Convoy 3, which was studying storm evolution in general, and could happily follow a garden-variety squall line all day taking infrared video and X-ray pictures of lightning. Bad news for Convoys 1 and 2, which required actual twisters to get their science done, and Convoy 4, which needed a damage path to survey.

Still, Bash tried. He placed his convoy just ahead of the point where cold and warm fronts were combining into an occluded front -- which had always looked to him like zipping up a fly, an image he conscientiously did not share with people who were not Rudy -- and stayed glued to nearby station reports like a presidential candidate listening to a running vote tally. Storm warnings came and went, but the wind shear just wasn't there.

He kept the trucks moving. Miles rumbled under their wheels. They gassed up twice. When things looked to be fading out, he even called a dinner break, and resolved that if something didn't pop before he finished his jamocha shake he'd give up for the day.

Then Rudy, who'd been napping in the truck, came ricocheting into the restaurant like an excited pinball. "Seward and Lincoln just got tornado warned!"

"Yeah baby, you know what I like," Bash crooned as he went to the doppler map for eastern Nebraska and refreshed the page. "Oh." His breath went out of him in a rush. "That's so beautiful. I need to screenshot this."

"You don't have time for a wank, Bash. That's a thirty mile drive and people are like, milling aimlessly. We need your drill sergeant skills."

"I know," Bash said absently as he saved the screencap. "But I've never seen such a textbook mesocyclone on an actual radar screen. I'd hate myself if I didn't grab it." He snapped his laptop shut. "All right, let's roll."

.

Less than an hour later, he was looking at a wicked gorgeous hook shape on the DOW screen, trying hard not to talk too fast into the radio while his stomach did the adrenaline two-step.

"It's moving about twenty miles per hour, so if you stop at the second turn there -- what's your position, Bluebird?" He plotted the coordinates as he heard them. His hands were steady. "That's good. You have time for setup if you hustle."

"I'd like to be farther south --"

"The road doesn't do that. No intersections, it just zigzags. There's no time to go around. I think this'll work now."

"Okay, Heidi's already on it."

"LFA, do you see the Bluebird vehicle?"

"Not yet. You said no intersections, but there's a dirt road that runs south here."

"Don't take that, it's a driveway. Keep on to the first turn and set down pods from there to the Bluebird, it's about a mile and you have maybe ten minutes."

He bit his lip, willing Cory not to fuck this up, not to make him a liar. Not to complain that ten minutes was a long time for a tornado to last, even though it was the minimum window for safe setup.

"That's a big ten-four, Montana. Laying eggs as of right now."

He blew his breath out. Thank you. Thank you.

"Montana?" Bluebird's channel said. "Who's Montana?"

"Apparently I'm Montana."

"That's no fair, I want a cool code name too." Laughter on multiple frequencies. Then a busy silence gradually fell.

Time dilated. It felt like hours had passed when Rudy said, "Alan says it just hit the airport."

Bash found Seward Municipal Airport on his map, checked the hook's speed and bearing on the radar screen. "Three minutes, people. Still going strong, no sign of veering."

"One more pod," Cory said. "Is there time?"

"Yes, but then you have to book it. Bluebird, you are still go for launch, but be ready to move immediately. You may have to abandon the catapult."

A laugh on the border of hysteria from Bluebird's channel. "We're flying RC planes into tornadoes, dude, we know the meaning of disposable."

Bash opened the back door and stuck his head out, leaning sideways to see past the slowly turning radar dish. He could see it now, about a mile away to the south: a long straight rat tail of a funnel, burnished gold by the evening light against a world of green cloud. It was so beautiful it took his breath away.

This is why I do it, he confessed to himself while his eyes watered in the hot wind. Not for science. Not for humanity. Those are bonuses. I do it because once you've seen this you can't leave it alone.

Then, because he had a job to do, he went back in and picked up the radio.

"It's about to cross the road," he told Bluebird. "Fire at will." To LFC: "Cory, come up to the DOW. Your pods are in a perfect spot, it's looking really good." Then back to Bluebird just in time to hear triumphant whooping. He gathered, from their garbled exclamations, that the UAV was in the air and working perfectly, and Heidi was piloting from the cargo bed as they drove away from danger.

Beaming from ear to ear, Bash wanted nothing more than to lace his hands behind his head, sink down in his seat, and bask in afterglow. But that would have to wait. After the tornado would come hail and torrential rain, and these roads would turn into soup. He let them all sing their victory songs, and then he gathered them in.

When the storm was past, everyone got out of their vehicles to stand on the side of the road and watch the clouds recede across the plain. Bash took deep breaths of the after-rain smell that always made him feel glad to be alive. Hands in pockets, he strolled over to the LFA truck, where Cory was conferring with Tracy and Steven over a laptop.

The wind parted Cory's hair at the nape of his neck, displaying his tractor-wheel bruise, now greening. Bash wanted to suck on it. Instead he said, "Any luck?"

Cory half-turned to give him a wry quirk of a non-smile. "It squeaked through between the pods. No money shot."

"Oh. Damn."

Cory shrugged. "Perfect placement, though." He watched Bash expectantly. Waiting for something. Bash didn't know what.

"We'll get it. That was an abnormally skinny funnel anyway."

"Size does matter," Cory said solemnly, and didn't crack up until after Tracy did.

"Rudy's finding us a hotel. I think we'll be in Omaha tonight. Bluebird wants to celebrate. You need help collecting your pods? It's going to be muddy."

"Naw, if we get stuck the chase truck can tow us out."

"Well, if you both get stuck let me know." Bash patted his shoulder consolingly and walked away. Lots of work still to do.

They were halfway to Omaha when he realized Cory had been waiting for an 'I told you so'. A 'see, if you obey me things will be fine'. Because it had been a perfect placement, and if the funnel had been a hundred yards wider it would've triggered at least one pod, maybe two. And everyone had been out of harm's way in time. 'I was right' would've been an obnoxious thing to say, but that didn't always stop people.

But it also would've been redundant, Bash thought. Because he's already decided to trust me. We both proved ourselves trustworthy today. Now all we're waiting on is luck.