Meanwhile fall was in the air and as the October air grew chill and the days grew shorter, Terrance had to start to dig his burrow for the winter hibernation. Lightfeather and her buddies were busy tanking up on nectar for the long migration south. Everyone made their goodbyes because they never new when a cold snap would force Terrance underground and the hummingbirds would have to fly suddenly away.
And so it was one morning the next week that Schlepp went out to the Vinca bed and found Terrance was gone, burrowed in somewhere deep under the mulch beneath the living room window. Louie checked Lightfeather’s nest and she, too, was gone.
Professor Bear’s Unobtainium work continued, but without the hummers, it took much longer to generate just a handful of milli-foobars of the precious substance. The aliens, with the critters’ help, were able to finish repairs on their ship and now only awaited the accumulation of enough Unobtainium to get underway.
But for Schlepp and Louie with their two best buddies gone, the bright fall sunshine seemed lackluster and the crisp air was not particularly refreshing. It would probably be April before they saw their friends again.
Of course it was Big Schlepp who noticed right away—after all he was Little Schlepp’s older brother. He knew with his many years of Accumulated Bear Knowledge and Wisdom that the best thing for taking the mind off absent friends is staying busy.
Pretty quick he had Louie working with Herr Professor Bear, keeping the prayer flags positioned just right for maximum Unobtainium gathering. That meant lots of scrambling up to the supports on the roof and then back down to check the meter readings with Herr Professor. By the end of each day he was one pooped monkey.
TS was set to work with Frannie Annie, Roberta, and the aliens. Since Schlepp was well traveled and knew how to read maps, his job was to learn where the mysterious peace beads were located.
“Mother. Ship crash near Roz. Well, de Fence took to hollow man.”
“Mothership crashed near Roswell. Defense Department took to Holloman – I think he means Holloman Air Force Base,” translated Roberta.
“Then the Peace Beads are near Alamogordo?” queried Schlepp, looking up from a map of southern New Mexico.
“Then piece? Beads ‘R’ near Alamo. Gordo!”
“Know, de Fence took next. Two Area 50. Won,” replied Number Four.
“No, DoD took them next to Area 51,” came the translation.
“Hmm? Nevada,” mused Schlepp as he thumbed through his stack of maps.
“Next they whirr take. En, too. Tee Aye thirty. Won in Los Alamos,” continued Number Four.
Roberta kept up translating, “Next they were taken to TA-31 in Los Alamos.”
“Holy cow,” exclaimed Schlepp, “that’s where Karl’s brother worked! His group dismantled that old tritium facility. So where are the Peace Beads?”
“Ware ‘R’ piece. Bee ‘Ds’?” asked Roberta.
“Donut no,” answered the alien, but before it could continue, a sudden roaring sound filled the room.
Number Four ducked under the table, crying “Vogons! Vogons!”
“Know Vogons,” reassured Roberta. “Just ball. Unz?”
Schlepp was already at the window looking out and up. “Boy! They never come this low, even during Balloon Fiesta. Cool!”
But then a moment later he jumped down and dove under the table to join Number Four. “Look out, Roberta! Its gonna crash!”
Roberta hopped down under the table, but the expected collision of balloon and house never happened. With a last roar of burning propane the balloon lifted just enough to clear the roof and then lightly plopped down in the backyard only feet from the piñon tree. All three–bear, rabbit, and alien–scrambled up to the window to look.
The brightly colored balloon was striped with yellow, orange, blue, red, and purple swaths of nylon fabric. The wicker basket held the pilot, a jolly fellow who was bent over the railing placing a white object on the ground. Then with a wave and a blast of burning propane, the balloon was off.
The white object shouted up, “Thanks for the lift!” as the balloon floated easily over the pine tree and away to the south.
Everyone’s attention turned to the curious white object, which was now ambling towards the house. It had a bear-like walk and a bear-like shape, but it was the wrong color. Bears aren’t supposed to be white.
With a sudden flash of recognition, Schlepp cried, “It’s a polar bear!”
“Pole; are bare?” said the alien.
“Ah, so! No polar bears in China,” said Roberta.
Travel Schlepp shouted back into the house, “Attention bears and critters! Visitor coming aboard!”
Everyone dashed over to the door and outside into the cool fall air. The polar bear waved and came over.
“Hi, everyone. I’m Chilly Bear, but all my friends call me Chili Bear. You guys must be the Home Front Brigade.”
“That’s us,” volunteered TS. “I’m Travel Schlepp. This is Roberta and Number Four.”
“Pole; are bare?” the alien said again.
Chili Bear looked with amazement. “That’s a space alien!” he stammered in surprise.
“Not to mind Being from Other Planet. He good friend,” said Roberta.
“If you say so, Miss,” replied the polar bear cautiously. “And you must be the Travel Schlepp. I’ve read so much about you.” Chili Bear shook Schlepp’s paw vigorously.
“Read about me? Where?” asked an incredulous Schlepp.
“On the Internet, of course,” replied Chili Bear. “Karl puts all your pictures and stories and podcasts on the Web.”
“Holy cow. Surely you didn’t come all the way from the Artic Circle just to see me?”
“Well,” explained Chili Bear, “with Global Warming, the ice melting and all, I thought it was time to move. I researched all sorts of places that have Teddy Bears using my Inuit friend’s computer and the Internet. New Mexico seemed full of pretty friendly bears and I always have liked enchiladas better than seal blubber. That’s why my friends call me ‘Chili’.”
“Well, you’re right on one thing—a hot poblano will keep you warmer than any seal blubber,” agreed Schlepp. “But how did a polar bear get from the North Pole to New Mexico in a hot air balloon?”
“Oh, that’s only the last few miles. Most of the way I hitched a ride in a Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream truck. Nice and frosty inside where nobody would bother me.”
“Well, com’on, let’s introduce you to the rest of the gang…” and off they went to find the rest of the critters.
Of course, it takes a good long while to find a couple dozen stuffed animals spread out all over the house. Even Big Schlepp wasn’t sure where everyone was. Things were only marginally easier because Terrance was hibernating and Lightfeather was gone—at least they didn’t have to climb trees or burrow around in the oregano. But what really took the most time by way of introductions was explaining the aliens. Herr Professor Bear then launched into a very detailed lecture on Unobtainium and its peculiar properties. By the time it was all finished, Chili Bear, and everyone else, except Herr Professor, were exhausted.
Time for a nap.