By Robin Praytor
This is the story of how I became significant. Significant to Earth, its past and its future, and significant to the Universe. It all started with a man. Not a real man—not in the human sense.
My name is Gracelyn Bonner. My friends call me Gracelyn. No one calls me Grace or Gracie. Actually, at the time, it was pointed out to me that I had no friends, only acquaintances. But, I’ll get to that.
When my story begins, I lived in Washington, D.C. I’d been enrolled in the American Studies Program at Georgetown University and just finished my sophomore year, but was taking a semester off to figure out what I wanted to do. I had no interest in American Studies. While I figured this out, I was temping as a clerk in one of the gift shops at the National Museum of Natural History.
On most days, I’d bring my lunch and eat on a bench across Madison Drive Northwest, next to the refreshment stand, opposite the Mall and the Smithsonian Institute. While I ate, I’d tourist-watch and play a little game where I’d try to guess, based solely on physical features, what nationality people were. I rarely knew if my guess was correct.
One day, as I unwrapped my lunch, I noticed a man sitting on the bench a few feet from mine. There was something very odd about him, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. I didn’t try to guess his nationality so much as what it was about him that was…well, off.
He was of medium height and slim build, wearing a hat and a trench coat, but not in a Spy vs. Spy sort of way. The hat was more slouchy, somewhat Eastern European, but not exactly. His coat, while probably several years old, was not necessarily out-of-date, but not trendy either. He was wearing suit pants and boots. The boots were very unusual indeed. They were light blue with flat heels and rounded toes. They seemed to be made of a smooth leather-like material up to the ankles where they were gathered and quilted and the material appeared more flexible. His pant legs broke across the high boot tops, only two inches or so below his knees.
I turned slightly toward him to gain a better view of his profile. I stared at him unabashedly for a long while. Eventually he swiveled and returned my stare. With a half-nod, half-smile I looked down at my uneaten sandwich.
As soon as he looked away, I continued my inspection. He was a mystery. His face was long, with knife-sharp cheek bones, and small, wide-set, almond-shaped eyes. His nose didn’t fit the rest of the face, upturned and broad, it was set too high. His mouth was strange as well. His upper lip was prominent, full, wider and overlapping his smaller lower lip. It resembled the lips of the Sisters of Plenitude in Doctor Who. Well, maybe not that prominent. But still, he was so strange looking I couldn’t be the only one noticing.
I scanned the crowd around us to see if anyone else was staring. No one was. When I turned back to the man—when I looked at his entire face—the peculiarity of each feature morphed into an odd, but not entirely unpleasant, whole. Something about him suddenly seemed familiar. Holy unanticipated plot twist, Batman! I thought I knew him. While I was trying to get to the root of this unexpected familiarity, the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone.
The cell phone rested on his flat-palmed hand which was raised in front of him at a forty-five degree angle. While he studied the screen, the phone stayed securely in place on his palm. As I watched, the man tipped his hand ever so slightly toward me and back, palm still flat. At the movement, the phone collapsed, first side-to-side, then end-to-end, into a small purplish cube, about the size of a die.
I looked quickly back at the passersby. Did anyone else see that? No one did. I returned my gaze to the man. His hands were in his pockets and the cell phone cube was out of sight. I stared at him questioningly, unable to comprehend what I’d just seen. He stared calmly back.
It occurred to me what it was about him that was so familiar. He reminded me of the Traveler. You know, Star Trek: The Next Generation, season one, episode six, Where No One Has Gone Before. Maybe it was episode five. Anyway, he didn’t look anything like the Traveler; he just exuded a Traveler-like aura. Where was Wesley Crusher when you needed him?
I glanced at my watch. I was fifteen minutes late for work. The tourists would have to wait in line a little longer than usual to purchase their replicas of the Hope Diamond. I wasn’t leaving my bench until he left his.
As this proclamation reverberated silently within me, a family of three invaded the other half of my bench. The teenage boy gestured excitedly jostling me, forcing me closer to the end of the bench. I made a bold decision. I stood, tossing my never-to-be-eaten sandwich into the trash, and walked with determination to the next bench. I sat down at the far end, opposite the man.
I looked directly at him and said, cleverly, “Hello.”
He smiled at me, “Hello, Gracelyn.”
Startled, I asked, “How do you know me?”
“I have been studying you for a while.”
“You mean stalking me?” Ha!
“Yes, although not for nefarious purposes,” he responded.
“Do you have a name?”
“Of course; my name is W’gen.”
He pronounced his name “Why-gen.” He was speaking in unaccented English without syllabic emphasis. I decided his speech would be very Spock-like, if Spock was more of a tenor than a bass and spoke with a purring undertone. So, really, not at all like Spock.
“Why are you stalking me?” People were coming and going around us. I felt no fear or anxiety, just curiosity.
“Because you are insignificant,” he said.
I could have spent all day guessing what his response to my question might be and never came remotely close to insignificant.
“Insignificant,” I repeated. I’ve never been known for my amusing repartee.
“Insignificance is very rare. Only one or two humans in each century achieve true insignificance,” W’gen said.
I double checked to be sure there were people around us. I had so many questions my brain could not process them into a cogent order. I was speechless and a little insulted.
W’gen perceived my difficulty and continued without prompting. “What is the name of your best friend?” he asked.
Where did that come from? “What?” I replied.
“What is the name of your best friend? Just his or her first name will suffice. You do have a best friend?”
“Of course I do. Her name is … Kasia.”
“Kasia works in the gift shop with you. You have known her for two weeks. She is your best friend?”
“Well, she’s a friend, and I think we will become very close. We have a lot in common.”
“What do you have in common with Kasia?” he asked. Then, without waiting for my reply, “Kasia is a sixty-year-old Polish grandmother who raises parakeets as a hobby.”
How did he know this? “Okay, I see where you’re going. I should have said Jennifer. We’ve known each other a long time.” Why hadn’t I thought of Jennifer first?
“Jennifer is your study partner at the University. You meet at the library and, in the seven months that you have known her, you have gone for coffee after studying on three occasions. Did you know she became engaged a week ago?”
“No, I didn’t. That’s wonderful. Tell her I’m happy for her. What exactly is your point?” I was becoming uneasy. Where was he getting all his information?
“You have no best friend. You have no friends. You have acquaintances only,” he declared.
“I don’t agree. But I can see how it may appear that way to an outsider.” Of course, he was right. “What do you care?” I felt my belligerence bubbling up. Who was this guy?
“Correct me if I am wrong,” he said. “You live in a studio apartment by yourself. You have no family. You do not have a pet. You are acquainted with many people, but you rarely socialize. You like to go to the movies often and alone. When you are not at school or at the movies, you are at home reading or watching TV. Your hobbies are Sudoku and crossword puzzles. Occasionally, you exercise.”
He’d nailed it. “I’m thinking of starting gaming. Who’s your best friend?”
“Kal-EL,” he said.
Wait…what the eff…? Did he say “Kal-El?” Really…was he making a joke? He was making a joke! My delayed laugh came out in a Sheldon Cooper-esque snort and wheeze.
Okay, it’d been fun, but I’d had enough.
“Tell me who you are and how you know so much about me,” I demanded.
“Of course. But, let us walk around the Mall while we talk. Your mouth has been open for a long period of a time. Do you require a beverage?”
I nodded weakly. We stepped to the refreshment kiosk. As if he were Obi-Wan, the short line broke apart as we approached the service window. A medium drink cup was sitting on the counter. W’gen picks up the drink and offered it to me. No money exchanged hands.
It was still early afternoon; there were hundreds of people on the National Mall around us. I felt safe…ish.
“Please do not ask questions while I speak,” he began. “I am from your time, but I am not from your planet.”
Do not ask questions? Really? I opened my mouth to speak and realize I couldn’t. I was struck mute. I might have said “struck dumb,” but I didn’t think that was politically correct, and I would resent myself for saying it. W’gen ignores the conversation I was having with myself—although I could feel him listening—and continued to speak.
“I am the senior curator of a mobile museum that travels throughout the Universe to technologically advanced planets. We currently have exhibits with specimens of intelligent life from eighty different worlds—only non-advanced worlds such as Earth, of course.”
Hey! The pressure was building within me. If I couldn’t speak I would die. As my anguish built to a point where I believed I would literally die, I experienced a painless pin prick and the pressured flowed out of me like air from a balloon. And … I was good. Thank you, W’gen.
W’gen continued. “Our goal is for each exhibit to have one specimen from the subject planet for every one-hundred years since the first use of written symbols to record information. Earth is our most complete exhibit, with sixty specimens. If you choose to join us, you would be Earth specimen sixty-one. Specimens must come voluntarily; we do not use coercion or force. Of primary concern is that each specimen be absolutely insignificant to the future evolution of its species and planet. You may speak now.”
“Oglphoo…?” It was as if I’d been straining against a leash and the person holding it suddenly let go. I fell right on my word. I recovered quickly, afraid he would turn me off again. “How do you know I’m absolutely insignificant to the future of my species? I’m only twenty, for God’s sake. I could do great things or…or…step on a butterfly.” Join him, seriously? I should have been freaking out. Why wasn’t I freaking out?
“As I mentioned, I am not a time traveler. However, that does not mean there are no time travelers. Time travelers are very rare—almost as rare as insignificant humans—and highly regulated. One such traveler has gone into Earth’s future and reported back.”
“So, your time traveler has marked me as insignificant to the evolution of my species and planet? How do you know he’s right?”
“He has never been wrong.”
“How would you know he’s never been wrong? Wait, that’s not my question. Do you know a guy named Stephen Hawking?” I asked.
“I know of him.”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s his theory or just a theory he subscribes to, but Hawking thinks, while we may be able to travel forward in time—by expanding wormholes or something like that—we can never travel backward in time because of a little thing called a temporal paradox. So, what gives?”
“Mr. Hawking is correct. Time travel is a one-way trip forward; however, in a very limited and crude manner, it is possible to communicate backward in time.”
“I see.” I nodded my head, knowingly. I had no clue; furthermore, I couldn’t believe I was having that conversation. “So, what exactly is the gig? I sit in a cage while aliens gawk at me?”
“There are no cages. You take turns with other Earth specimens, appearing in small auditorium settings, and answer questions from our museum members and guests about your life on Earth and Earth culture in general.”
“Earth doesn’t have one culture; it has hundreds, thousands even. I’m barely versed in my own culture. Wouldn’t you rather have an Earth sociologist or scientist answering questions?”
“We would. However, the odds of finding an insignificant human in either profession are incalculable.”
He didn’t pull his punches. “Okay, let’s say I agree. What’s in it for me?” The odds of my agreeing to his insanity were about the same as finding an insignificant sociologist or scientist—squared!
“You will represent your century of Earth history for the millennia to come. You will meet and make friends—perhaps best friends—with fellow human specimens who represent their own centuries over the past six thousand Earth years. In addition, you will meet specimens from other worlds and learn about their cultures and histories. You will have access to the collective knowledge of the Universe.
“Museum residential quarters are comfortable and spacious. I understand the food is very good. When you are not on exhibit, you may relax in any of the museum’s common areas and are free to socialize with whom you choose. You will be given personal time to visit any of the advanced planets.”
Oh, well, if the food was good, and I could travel… For the next few minutes we walked in silence while I absorbed what W’gen had said. Then, something occurred to me. “W’gen, did you say I would represent my century of Earth history for the millennia to come? How is that possible?”
“In relation to the average human lifespan, you will become immortal,” he said.
“So, I will become immortal and significant?” I asked. Suddenly, there was nothing more important to me than to be significant.
“Yes, you will live long and you will have importance,” W’gen responded.
It didn’t escape me that he’d rephrased his statement so even a non-advanced Earthling like me could understand. We continued in silence a bit further. I’m not sure when, but at some point I accepted that W’gen was what he claimed. I had no doubt, despite my internal protests that I would ultimately agree to go with him. Why was I stalling?
I gaze over the crowd. I don’t think I will ever adjust to the variety of races in the universe.
“Allons-y. If you will check the footnotes in your programs, you will see that Allons-y is Earth French for ‘Let’s go,’ a favorite saying of the tenth Doctor. I wait politely for the applause to subside.
“Now, I’ll be happy to answer your questions.”