Anna stopped her car before it careened off the side of the road. It was a tricky feat. She’d been driving at triple digit speeds on a road that was barely adequate for pedestrians. Time being of the essence though, she hadn’t been left with much choice.
“Can you see if the school bus is down there?” JB asked over their commlink.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Anna said, looking over the lip of the ravine she had almost plunged into.
“And the children?” JB asked. There was a commotion in the background, words chanted in Medieval French and modern Spanish.
“There is movement within the bus,” Anna said. “They’re too far away for me to see if all of the children are safe though.”
Below her, teetering precariously against the edge of the cliffside, the Yellow Star #5 school bus was perched a quarter of the distance down the incline with only friction and a too small rocky outcropping keeping it from tumbling down.
“We’ve got fire and rescue trucks inbound, but they’re at least twenty minutes away,” JB said. “How stable does the bus look?”
It shifted an inch and then another inch more.
“Not stable enough,” Anna said and popped open the trunk of her car. Inside, lengths of chain and metal cabling awaited her. She reached past those, digging into the depths of the trunk to grab the chainsaw that lay underneath. “I’m going to have to cut them free.”
“Are you sure?” Val asked. “That wouldn’t be easy for a full rescue crew, and we only get one shot at this.”
“I am open to other suggestions,” Anna said. The chainsaw was a specialty model. It’s diamond tipped blades and oversized engine were guaranteed to cut through anything. The guarantee was mere marketing hype, but with the enchantment Tam had placed on it the hype could, in this case, be believed.
“Ok, get one of the drones going,” Val said. “I know we don’t have much time, but I’ve got an idea, I just need to see the layout of everything.”
Val had one of the video equipped drones from her back seat in the air in less than a minute.
“Wow, that’s pretty terrible,” Val said., inspecting the scene on a widescreen monitor.
“The roads are in miserable shape,” Anna said. “And I don’t think our not-so-friendly mountain spirit Old Man Green is done with his tantrum yet.”
“That’s ok,” Val said. “I think we can work with this. Though on a side note, since when do mountains get to decide to have their own personalized earthquakes? That seems pretty unfair to everyone else involved, no?”
“We’ll take it up with the mountain when the children are out of danger,” Anna said, scanning the path down the not-quite vertical cliff face to the bus. There were hand holds, but it wouldn’t be a simple climb even unencumbered. With the chainsaw in tow she was going to have a decidedly “fun” go of things.
“Yeah, right, good point,” Val said. “Ok. Here’s my plan. We don’t need to get the kids out, we just need them to safe. So rather than lifting them up right awaty, we’re going to drop the bus down.”
“That seems like it would be dangerous for the children,” Anna said.
“They’re not going to be in the part that gets dropped,” Val said.
“How is that going too…?” JB started to ask, but Anna supplied the answer in the form of her own question.
“You want me to cut the bus in half? How is that not going to be more dangerous for the children?”
“If you cut an opening to get the kids out, then as you change the number of kids in the bus, its weight will change. That will cause the bus to move, and you don’t have the equipment to secure it properly.”
“Cutting the bus in two will also cause the weight to change,” Anna said. “Rather drastically.”
“Look at how the bus is situated though,” Val said. “The ledge it’s on is wide enough to hold it, but the front end is hanging off and dragging the rest slowly over the side. It’s only hanging on because the back axle shattered and the back tires are all deflated.”
“I see, remove the front end and the bus will stay settled on the ledge regardless of how many children are extracted from it. Especially since the engine will fall away with the rest of the front, meaning all the weight that’s capable of pulling the rest over the edge will be gone.” JB said before asking. “But can the chainsaw handle that sort of load?”
“Easily,” Tam said, switching to English for a moment as her chant completed. “And we should have a full day before Old Man Green acts up again.”
“That will give us time to be in a better position for the rescue workers,” Anna said. “But we have minutes at most before we’re out of time and options. Are you sure this will work?”
“No,” Val said. “I’m gambling on the chainsaw being implausibly good, and the ledge holding up during the cutting process. I can’t be sure about either of those, but I think this is the best chance we have.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Anna said and began her descent.
The wall was rough from the landslide that had scoured the road out. If she’d been climbing for fun, Anna would have felt the need to add a few flourishes to the climb to impress whoever she was climbing with. On a solo climb though, and with dozens of little lives on the line, she kept her work neat and controlled.
The bus shifted three more times as she crawled down to it, but she didn’t let that distract her or hurry her pace. She was already traveling as fast as she could without running a serious risk of falling. A fall which would leave the trapped children with noone to saved them.
“Sorry you got the call for this one,” Val said.
“I was the closest,” Anna said.
“Yeah, but this kind of thing is my job,” Val said.
“What are those drones showing you? Do I look like I’m getting too old for this?” Anna asked, allowing a trace of levity into her voice.
At fifty six, she knew she’d lost some of the resiliency she enjoyed in her youth. Aches took longer to go away, if they ever disappeared fully at all, and her sleep wasn’t as restful or brief as it had been when she was at her prime. Despite that though, she was happy with how well she’d managed to keep up with her younger teammates.
The trick was to be aware of her actual limitations and reserve the times when she exceeded those to only when it was truly important. For example, when the lives of a busload of children were on the line.
“You’re looking fine,” Val said. “And you’re doing as good as I would have. Probably better. I just like being out in the field.” Her worry wasn’t entirely unfounded Anna knew. If something went wrong, the younger woman would have had more reserved of strength and endurance to meet the challenge with. Anna’s strategy therefore was to substitute experience for stamina and make fewer mistakes. It was a good plan, but inwardly she was all too familiar with the limits of how well one could simply choose to avoid mistakes. Sometimes they just happened, and all she could do was pray this would not be one of those times.
“The next school bus which plunges off a cliff is all yours,” Anna said, grunting as she pulled herself across the cliff to the bus’s rear door.
She’d chosen that end of the bus because it was where the children were gathered, as far from the end that was pitching down as they could get. Anna wasn’t sure if it was an intentional strategy on their part but it was a fortunate one in any case. Their combined weight at the end of the fulcrum the bus teetered on was enough to balance the weight of the engine which gravity was insisting should take a rapid trip towards the bottom of the ravine.
“Is anyone hurt?” she asked when she got close enough for the children to hear her.
“The driver!” one of the fifth graders said, pointing towards the front of the bus.
Anna looked through the back window and saw a woman her own age collapsed in the aisle seat, having fallen out of the driver’s seat at some point in the descent. Anna saw the woman’s chest rise and fall, but other than that the driver was unresponsive.
That complicated things. Anna began to unclip herself from her climbing harness.
“I need someone who is brave and small,” she said, scanning the children’s faces. Two tiny girls both with the same face and same pig tailed hair looked back at her from the horde that had gathered at the window.
“This door is too broken to open,” Anna said, pointing at the twisted mess that had once been the rear exit door. “So I’m going to pass this harness and rope to you. I need one of you to take it to the driver and put the harness around her shoulders.”
It was a lot to ask anyone, especially a fifth grader, and not even vaguely a good idea with a person as injured as the driver, but since the alternative was a fatal plunge to the ravine floor, Anna didn’t hesitate.
“I can do it!” one of the twins said. Her sister stuck out her tongue at her and looked away with aloof disinterest.
Anna passed the climbing harness to her volunteer and climbed onto the bus’s ruined back bumper to add weight in an effort to counteract the effect of the little girl moving forward.
The bus shook and slipped a few more times before the girl had the driver clasped into the harness, but once she did Anna wasted no time hauling the woman to the back.
With the bus as secured as she could make it, she instructed the children, “stay towards the back here, I need to do some cutting,” she held up the chainsaw, “and it’s going to a bit loud. Don’t worry though, I’m just making it so we’ll be safe enough to get out here.”
The children, without exception, looked puzzled but accepting. Anyone who promised safety in the present circumstances was worth listening to in their book.
Anna climbed to the top of the bus and walked forward, keeping a careful eye for end of the ledge.
“It looks like the kids are away from the cutting zone,” Val said. “I’ll keep an eye on them in case they freak out when the sparks start flying but I don’t know if you’ll hear me over the chainsaw.”
“I’ll cut slow,” Anna said.
“No. Don’t,” Val said. “The weight will start shifting when the front end begins to fall. This will be safe if you can make a fast, clean cut.”
“Do chainsaws make cuts that fast through metal?” Anna asked.
“That one does,” Tam said.
Anna had never known Tam to exaggerate her achievements. If anything she tended to undersell herself unless she was on stage and performing a well rehearsed routine. Fearing that this might be the first time she encountered a claim which one of Tam’s enchantments couldn’t live up to, Anna kicked the chainsaw to life and touched it to the bus’s roof.
It slide through the metal like it was cutting through a thin slice of paper.
It took no more than a flick of her wrist for Anna to carve a circle into the bus which she dropped down through, making sure to land on the correct side of the ledge’s end.
The children gasped at her arrival, but their shock turned to a quiet confusion when she flashed them a calm smile before turning back to her work.
Starting at the spot where the floor and wall met between the second and third seats, Anna plunged the mystically sharpened chainsaw into the frame and sliced a cut across the floor, up the other wall, across the roof and down the last wall and fast as she could spin her arms around.
In a mighty shower of sparks, the front of the bus surrendered to gravity and hurtled down to crash into the bottom of the ravine. The remaining bit where Anna and the children were enjoyed a less dramatic fate, settling onto the ledge where they had landed with a solid thump which said it wasn’t going anywhere no matter how people shifted their weight, or who was rescued from it.
“Thank you so much!” each child said as they were pulled, one by one to safety.
All except for the twins.
“Can I be your sidekick!” the volunteer twin asked.
“I just want that chainsaw,” the other said.
People made all sorts of uses of the second chances they got but something told Anna that she should keep an eye on these two over the next decade or two.