Author: 长洱 / Chang’er
Translator: Kinky || https://kinkytranslations.com/
Just when there was a not-too-serious dispute in the office of the chairman of the Hongjing Highway, something also happened in a mountain range southwest of the Hongjing Highway.
Qiong Mountain was southwest of Hongjing. It was nearly a kilometer above sea level and was surrounded by clouds and fog all year round.
When the weather turned rainy, the scenery here was the best. The wet water vapor condensed on the rock wall, rubbing over the moss, and finally merged into a gurgling stream along the crevices.
At the edge of the stream between the valleys was the Qiong Mountain scenic campground. From a distance, the entire campsite was colorful, full of various tents that were set up by campers.
More importantly, among those people, there were many children.
Cao Qianzhi was an ordinary elementary school teacher at Fengjing. Today was a field trip day for the first graders at Fengjing. The place was set in Qiong Mountain.
He stood at the edge of the camp and watched the staff pretending to be mountain people, bringing a goat to the children. The children seemed to have never seen a live goat before as they gathered around it to point and poke, looking excited.
Cao Qianzhi’s gaze moved from the goat to the water’s edge. There were still some children watching fish by the stream. They huddled together and seemed to be discussing how to fish. As a teacher, he didn’t walk over to stop them as the stream was very shallow. It was a specially created artificial landscape. He also trusted his students not to get their shoes and socks wet since it was still cold in early spring.
Everything looked very peaceful and harmonious, but the uneasiness in Cao Qianzhi’s heart became heavier.
There was a sound of rapid footsteps in the distance, making Cao Qianzhi hurriedly follow to look for its source.
The dean and another teacher who led the team with him were quickly running towards him. Both of them looked solemn and shook their heads at him.
“Haven’t you made contact yet?” Although he knew the answer, he still subconsciously asked.
“No. We can’t get through to Master Xu’s phone, and Teacher An’s phone is also turned off. The car should’ve arrived half an hour ago!” The dean whispered.
Cao Qianzhi looked at his watch. Time had long passed since their scheduled meeting time.
Today, for the school’s spring field trip, the school rented six buses to send children to Qiong Mountain. They gathered at the entrance of the school early in the morning. It took more than four hours to drive from the school to the mountain. When they set off, they spent a lot of time on the road because of the traffic jam. It was also because the order of the buses was disrupted, several buses were separated by ten minutes before they arrived at Qiong Mountain, one after another.
If that was the case, it was just a trivial matter of a delayed trip. However, after the five buses arrived at the meeting point, the last bus, No. 3, didn’t. On the bus were twenty-six students from class three, the school’s first grade, and two leading teachers.
They always thought that Bus No. 3 was left behind because of the traffic jam. They tried contacting the driver and the two teachers earlier, but they couldn’t get through to their phones.
At first, they thought it was because of the poor signal in the mountains, but just now, the dean and another teacher went to the campground visitor center to try to call them again. They were only met with the same mechanical and monotonous female voice at the other end of the line. Only then did they realize that Bus No. 3 could have been involved in an accident.
“Even if there was an accident, their phones wouldn’t just fail to connect!” The female teacher on the side said worriedly.
“Did you call the highway side?” Cao Qianzhi continued to ask.
“Yes. They said they are investigating but haven’t found them yet.”
Cao Qianzhi was silent for a moment before he finally said, “Let’s call the police.”
In the office of the chairman of the Hongjing Highway Company, three phones rang almost simultaneously.
Xing Conglian took half a step back in front of the chairman and took out his cellphone. The Chairman breathed a sigh of relief and picked up the landline impatiently. Liu Xing heard the phone for the assistant’s office ringing, got up, and ran out.
After a while, Xing Conglian looked at Lin Chen. The chairman’s expression stiffened while Liu Xing rushed back to the room.
The other end of the line had delivered terrible news.
“The City Bureau just received a report that a school bus from Fengjing disappeared on the highway.” Xing Conglian pressed mute as he spoke to Lin Chen.
“How could it be missing? The highway exits are monitored!” Before Lin Chen could speak, Yang Dianfeng exclaimed.
Xing Conglian frowned, only to see Lin Chen’s thin lips pursed lightly. He sat upright on the sofa and didn’t speak.
He was still on the call, so he didn’t have time to answer Yang Dianfeng’s question. After a while, he suddenly raised his head, held down the phone with one hand and pointed to it with the other hand, looking at Wang Chao.
Wang Chao reacted quickly. He took out his cellphone and was about to hand it over to Xing Conglian. However, Xing Conglian motioned him to give it to Lin Chen instead.
“The schoolteacher will call soon. You answer it,” Xing Conglian said to Lin Chen and quoted a series of numbers to the other end of the line.
Soon, Wang Chao’s cellphone rang.
Qiong Mountain Scenic Area, Campsite.
Cao Qianzhi’s palms were sweating. The female teacher who was with him had already burst into tears. Various terrifying pictures continued to appear in his mind, making him even more flustered.
The moment the phone was connected, he couldn’t help but shout at the person who answered it. “Have you found the bus yet? If not, what can I do?”
After he finished speaking, the other end of the line was quiet for about three seconds before a voice came through.
It was a calm and tranquil male voice, like the flowing water of a stream or the breeze in the mountains, slowly trickling into his ears.
“Hello. I understand you are currently anxious, but I need you to calm down. Take a deep breath with me and answer my questions.”
Of course, Cao Qianzhi knew how to take a deep breath, but things were urgent right now. How could there be time to take deep breaths! While he thought so, his body involuntarily followed the calm instructions at the other end of the line, and he began to inhale deeply, then exhale.
“What time did the bus depart from the school?”
“Okay, I need you to recall carefully now. When was the last time you saw that school bus?”
The voice was still calm and mellow, but this question made Cao Qianzhi panic again. “I don’t remember!” His mind was in chaos, so he subconsciously blurted out, “Every bus was the same. I can’t tell the difference.”
On the other end of the line, the young man holding the cell phone seemed to have expected this. He put down his pen, flipped the white paper in front of him, and faced the person opposite him.
Opposite him was a young man wearing a cap. The young man glanced at the white paper, which had “bus, recent photos, bring up” written on it. He nodded and began to tap the keyboard.
The voice on the other end of the line disappeared for a few seconds. Cao Qianzhi felt that the wind in the mountains was getting colder. He panted twice, and the voice on the other end of the line immediately responded.
“Hello, I’m here.”
Words like clear water flowed out again, causing Cao Qianzhi to relax a little. Then he heard the man say, “Perhaps you’re just not clear. In fact, human memory doesn’t completely subside because of the passage of time. They have another system that stores implicit memories, so for things you forget or don’t remember, in fact, your brain preserves them in another form. What I need you to do is to calm down and recall. At the same time, you need to do your best when recalling. This can help us determine the time cut-off point, which is very important.”
The same clear voice as flowing water also sounded in Wang Chao’s ears, but he obviously didn’t have the chance to close his eyes. He was very nervous.
After hearing Lin Chen speak, he quickly connected to the SkyEye system and brought up the surveillance of the field trip gathering at the entrance of Fengjing at around 6:20 AM.
Six buses were lined up one after another on the road. Their bodies were pure white with colorful cloud patterns painted on them. The words “Hongjing Foreign Affairs Vehicles Management Co.” were vaguely distinguishable.
Judging from the appearance of several buses, there was no difference. Wang Chao looked up anxiously, but the person opposite was gone. When he looked to his right, Lin Chen was already beside him.
On the screen, fair and delicate fingers crossed and stopped on the body of the third bus.
Wang Chao zoomed into the picture and the words “Foreign Affairs” on the bus’s body became bigger and the rest of the words became more blurred.
He tapped his finger on a spot above the rear wheel, and then quickly pulled away.
Wang Chao took a closer look. Behind the body, where the huge blue clouds were originally painted, there seemed to be something missing, as if it looked incomplete. Most likely, this Bus No. 3 had just come out of a repair shop, and the missing piece had been repaired, but the spray paint wasn’t done yet.
Wang Chao subconsciously looked at Lin Chen. Lin Chen had already walked to the window as he spoke slowly. “There’s a blue cloud above the rear wheel of Bus No. 3, but the cloud is half gone. Although you won’t notice this, your brain definitely recorded it. Now, I need you to close your eyes and start recalling…”
“It was on a busy highway. There were a lot of cars around, and the children on the bus were laughing. Because it was a bit noisy and you had to get up early, you felt a little sleepy. You got distracted and looked out the window. The scenery outside was beautiful. There were reeds that stretched to the sky, and you saw cars passing by from time to time. Suddenly, you see a bus. It’s very strange. The pattern near the wheel seemed to be missing something. You may have watched it for less than a second, but because it was so odd, you remembered it…”
Following the soft voice, Cao Qianzhi seemed to have really returned to that noisy bus. He looked around the window, and a bus happened to pass by.
“I remember!” He suddenly raised his voice. “There was such a bus, but I don’t know when this was!”
“Please work hard to recall. Were there any iconic buildings in that scene? Perhaps a green road sign on the side of the road that looked very conscious…”
“No, no. There were just reeds all around.” Cao Qianzhi frowned, as if desperately grasping the image that was about to flash away. “Wait a minute. I remember! A child told me that he wanted to go to the toilet, so the driver said he would stop at a rest stop in Meicun right away!” Cao Qianzhi opened his eyes abruptly.
Lin Chen quickly returned to his desk, picked up a pen, and wrote the word “Meicun” on the paper.
“You or the teacher next to you, do you remember what time you stopped at the rest stop in Meicun?”
“Wait a minute. Let me ask.”
In front of the laptop, Wang Chao had already brought up a map of the entire Hongjing Highway. While looking at the map, he calculated on the paper. “Meicun’s service station is about 130 kilometers from Honjing to Qiong Mountain. The traffic jam occurred after 7:00. If they left at 6:30, taking into account the distance and the traffic jam, they would arrive at Meicun’s service station around 8:30.”
As soon as Wang Chao dropped his pen, an eager male voice came from the phone. “Our director said that it was around 8:30 when we entered Meicun’s service station! I really can’t remember the rest!”
The male teacher sounded extremely apologetic.
“That’s fine. Thank you very much. It was very helpful.”
Seeing Lin Chen hang up the phone, Wang Chao breathed a sigh of relief and felt strange in his heart. “How did you know that there would be a difference in Bus No. 3?!”
“I didn’t.” Lin Chen picked up the calculation paper and then said, “But at that time, I could only hope for luck.”
“What if your luck is bad?”
“Then you keep on taking chances.”
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