April 1783
By: James Rumpel

Ben trudged through the muddy back streets of Philadelphia, pulling his cloak tight. The oversized wool jacket served two purposes. First, it protected Ben from the frigid April wind. The spring of 1783 had proven to be much cooler than usual. Second, the cloak provided excellent camouflage. He had no desire to be recognized or have his mission interrupted.

When he reached the back door of the Old Tun Tavern he paused to scout the area. Another, similarly, clothed, clandestine traveler was approaching. Ben instantly recognized the familiar gait.

"George," he called quietly once the new arrival was near enough to be addressed without the need to shout. "I am happily surprised that you decided to attend this meeting. I wasn't certain you would believe or heed my message."

"You know how strongly I appreciate your opinion, Benjamin. If you think this is a worthy endeavor, who am I to act counter to it?"

"Well, you are the Commander in Chief of our nation," replied Ben. The heavy scarf he wore hid the sly smile on his face.

"We are not a free nation yet. The war is not over," said George.

"It will be soon, and I am certain that we will be victorious. I hear rumors of much consternation among the British."

"But, if I understand your message correctly, the meeting tonight is not about the war."

"No, it is not," answered Ben. "It is something much bigger and, dare I say, very unbelievable."

"Well, let's get it going then," suggested George. "Standing in a back alley at two in the morning is not a place I prefer to be."

"Of course." Ben turned and gave the back door of the pub two swift taps and then added a third after a short pause.

The door swung inward, revealing a dimly lit storage room. The only light came from a single lantern on the far wall. Ben and George entered and saw a table set up in the middle of the room. A hooded figure sat on the far side of the table. The man's face was masked by shadows.

"Please, have a seat," said the man at the table. His voice was strange, formal, unnatural. It echoed as if the man were speaking from the bottom of a well.

"Sit down, George," suggested Ben as gestured toward the two empty chairs across the table from the stranger. "You will want to be seated for this." After both men had settled into their chairs, Ben continued. "George Washington, I would like to introduce you to Martin. Please, keep an open mind. Martin is not from our world."

Before George could react to Ben's outlandish statement, the man on the other side of the table pulled back his hood.

"What manner of witchcraft or demon is this?" called George. He quickly stood; his chair tumbled to the ground behind him.

The creature sitting on the other side of the table was clearly not human. When it removed its hood, it revealed a large head the shape and color of an inverted gourd. Two apple-sized, dark eyes occupied the wide upper half of the pale green face. A tiny mouth, little more than a slit sat at the narrow bottom. Two tiny openings could be seen where a normal person's nose would be located.

"George," called Ben. "You must trust me. I reacted the same way when Martin came to me this morning. But I am convinced that what he has to say is true. He is from another planet."

"I have seen many shocking things in my lifetime," announced George. "This is by far the strangest and most frightening."

"Please, Sir. Have a seat. I mean you no harm," said Martin. His mouth moved as he spoke, but the words came from a small black box he wore on a golden string around his neck.

Ben glanced around the storeroom for a cup and an open keg of ale. "Let me pour you a drink."

"Ben," proclaimed George, "if I did not trust you completely, I would have run from this room. I know you are not a man prone to practical jokes or unnecessary frivolity so I will stay. But, know this, I am convinced that I am sitting before the devil himself." He cautiously reset his chair a good distance away from the table and sat down. His hands shook noticeably as he took the mug of ale Ben offered.

"Thank you," said Martin. "I understand your confusion and trepidation. I have come to make you a very valuable offer."

Ben sat down next to George. "I think it would help if you told George where you are from."

"Of course," said the odd-looking creature. It adjusted the box around its neck with its right hand, a hand that featured three incredibly long and gangly fingers. "I have come to Earth from another planet. I represent the Interplanetary Travel Alliance. There are over two hundred worlds working together to explore the galaxy."

"That is not true. There are only five other planets," interrupted George.

"Actually, six," added Ben. "Another was discovered by William Herschel a couple of years ago."

"Your solar system has a total of eight or nine planets, depending on how you categorize them," said Martin. "However, there are millions of other solar systems and planets in the universe. They are separated by vast distances, distances you would find incomprehensible."

George shook his head. "You expect me to believe that there are other worlds and you can travel between them." He started to rise from his chair.

Ben held out his hand to stop his friend. "Please, George. Martin showed me some amazing things, including a flying ship. What his people can do with electricity is mind-boggling."

"So, have you come to conquer us?" asked George as he settled back into the wooden chair.

"No, not at all," said Martin. "We have rules against interfering with the development of other worlds. However, this is a special case and we have decided that on this one occasion it would be better for all if we let you know of our existence. You see we are building an interplanetary expressway and we would like to put an exit near Earth so your planet can serve as a rest stop of sorts."

"You see, George," interrupted Ben. "Martin explained it to me as a roadway between planets."

"It's not an actual road," interjected Martin. "We are constructing a series of giant rings along a path between solar systems. When a ship passes through one ring it is pushed forward at great speed to the next. Earth is located in the middle of a very long stretch of these rings and it would work out well for everyone if travelers could take a break and visit your planet for supplies or fuel or entertainment."

"Why you telling us this?" asked George. "Why are you really here?"

"As I said, we do not like interfering with the development of a planet. We will only put an exit near Earth if the people of Earth agree to our plan. There will be amazing technology brought to your world if we do this. Your world will change greatly."

"But, why are you asking us? The United States of America is only one of many nations on this planet. We have yet to fully gain our independence from Great Britain. Why aren't you asking others for permission?"

Martin reached below the table and pulled out a stack of orange-colored sheets of parchment which he set on the table. "We are going to ask others." He pulled a pair of immense spectacles from his cloak and set them on his face. The glasses made his eyes look even bigger than they already were. "You are the first we have visited. There are eight other nations I am going to make my proposal to. If any of them do not accept our offer, we will not go through with our plan. I repeat, we mean your world no harm and do not wish to force anything upon you."

"Why visit us first?" asked Ben.

"Our analytics have determined that by the time we reach the point in our construction that Earth will become involved, your country will be one of, if not the, strongest nation on your planet." He removed his spectacles and began to return them to his pocket.

"Can I see those?" asked Ben. "The lenses seem rather strange. It's as if they have different lenses on the top than on the bottom."

The creature passed his glasses to Ben.

"I'm more interested in how you make orange parchment," announced George.

"These are all part of the wonderous inventions and technology we will be able to give you," answered Martin. "But, please, let us continue. I wish to proceed to France for more negotiations."

"I can help with that," said Ben as he returned the strange spectacles. "I am heading back to Paris in a week. I'm the United States Ambassador to France. I have passage on a very fast ship. We should be there in under two months."

"I plan on being in Paris by morning. If you accept our offer, everyone in your world could have the capability of traveling across the globe in a matter of minutes." He again reached below the table. This time he extracted a stack of purple parchment. "If you will allow me to go over the details and have you sign a few documents."

"Wait," interrupted George. "I can't lie to you. Your offer, even though I don't completely understand it, seems to be very generous. However, I am going to decline. We are still waging war against a powerful nation that has tried to rule us from afar. Your alliance may very well prove to be benevolent and peaceful, but I cannot, in good conscience, risk putting our entire world in the hands of an unknown tyrant."

"We are not a tyrant. We will give you nothing but things that will help you. No one on Earth will ever have to endure hard work again. We have machines that can do everything for you. We can rid your world of sickness and pain."

"The things which hurt, instruct," said Ben.

"We are a new nation," added George. "By the sound of it, we are also a relatively new world. We deserve the right to learn and develop on our own. Life should not be an easy journey. We will not accept your offer."

"I see," said Martin. "Then there is no need for me to go on to France. Since one nation has refused the offer, we will not interfere with your world. We will plan on putting the exit and rest area somewhere else. Maybe we will return in another two-hundred or so of your years. Maybe then the leaders will not be as idealistic."

"I am sorry to disappoint you," said George.

"No, I completely understand and admire your decision. Your world has great potential. I do have one final favor to ask, however." He pulled a strange device that resembled a telescope with an extremely wide lens from his cloak. It sparkled with an array of different colors. "Will you both please look into the colored glass for a second."

***

Ben awoke with a pounding headache. He searched his memories for an explanation of what had happened the previous day. He could not recall anything that had happened after breakfast. He did, however, come up with an idea of putting two lenses into a pair of glasses. He would call them bifocals.

END

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