The door from the laboratory opened to a warm, brightly-lit building, a homesick beacon in the surrounding midnight desert. With floor-to-ceiling windows and a greasy fragrance on the air, the place was unmistakably a roadside diner, though it may as well have been at the bottom of the ocean for how little outside noise there was. The booths were void of customers, save for one or two as sparsely arranged as a balding man’s precious hair. A hostess of some inhuman species was stationed at the front of the house; she leaned on the podium in as expressive boredom as any earthly teenager. The kitchen was bursting with busy energy despite the lack of waiting diners, delicious steam rising from the order window among the grunts of the cooks.
The traveler approached the hostess. “I’m supposed to be meeting somebody here,” they said.
She nodded in response and motioned for them to follow her. Their destination was a table in the back corner of the restaurant, where a fatigued-looking man in peculiar clothing was staring out into the blackness. He had lines set deep into his face, as labyrinthine as the trenches of the seas shimmering in his eyes. When he turned his head to greet the traveler, he seemed to move independently of the space around him; all was ever stiller the longer he remained in motion.
“Good to see you’ve made it,” he said. His voice was steady, which made the traveler’s nerves even less so.
They sat down across from the man and the hostess was soon replaced by a waitress of nearly identical features. She set two glasses on the table and was gone. Peering into the glass, the traveler saw that they contained a clear liquid. Having received no explanation, they hesitated to ingest whatever lay in front of them.
The man laughed gruffly. “It’s water.”
“Oh.” They took a sip and tried not to make eye contact.
“So you’re the one, then,” continued the man.
“I guess I am.”
“New to the job, I take it?”
“Not one for definite answers, I see.”
“Nothing quite seems definite anymore.”
“I understand. Really, I do. I was just like you once. We all have to start somewhere.”
“Can you tell me where this somewhere is?” They gave a vague gesture to the entire span of the diner. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.”
The man leaned back and rested his arms on the back of the booth. “We call these liminal spaces. They exist as an in-between location for connecting timelines. Nobody quite knows why, but they’re handy for occasions like this.”
“Oh, that’s right. Okay, so we’ve been getting some weird readings from the time stream over on my end, and—”
“Whoa there, no need to rush. I know the job can seem like the most important thing in the world, but it’s better to just take it slow. Especially since you’re new here.”
They weren’t quite sure what to say to that, so they busied themself with trying to swirl the water in the glass without spilling any. Didn’t really work, and now they were cursing themself internally for acting so stupid. You only get one first impression, even if it is with a stranger you’ll probably never see again. Maybe that was what bothered them about this job: everyone they interacted with would think of them in a certain way, and that way might not be good. Thinking about annoying somebody you don’t even know is a hell of an anxiety fuel.
“What’s it like in yours?” the man asked.
“Uh...it’s okay, I think. We didn’t have World War II, which didn’t seem all that strange to me until I heard that other places did. I think everything else is pretty much the same on a worldwide level, though.”
He nodded. “Where I come from, we never had the Civil War. I don’t usually see travelers with the same sort of difference. Usually it’s more about how things work, how they look...I once met a person who came from a place where humans had evolved to stop processing the color green. Sure, for them it’s hell once they know what they’re missing, but let me tell you, I’d go blind entirely if it meant that the Civil War could happen.”
“Wait, so does that mean that…?”
“No, we still outlawed slavery, it just took a while longer. No offense, kid, but your boy Lincoln was a goddamn poser. Compared to your timeline, think of us as if the 1960s were happening today. Still a pretty rough patch for people like me.”
“It’s not your fault. I appreciate that, though. I won’t lie, it’s pretty terrible. If I get the promotion I’m being considered for, I’ll live to see happier times, but God knows if I want to bother waiting.”
“I know what you mean.”
The man smiled. “Tell me everything.”
“No, it’s really nothing. I just understand how you feel.”
“Yeah, but unless you’re being an ignorant white person, the only way you’d be saying that would be if you’d experienced some of the same s*** I go through every day. So what’s different about you that people love to hate?”
The traveler looked out the window, where there was nothing. Had there been stars or streetlamps, there still would have been nothing. They wondered what would happen if they stepped outside. The answer, and the person asking the question, would be nothing. The kind of nothing that feels like it’s suffocating you, like it’s really everything when it reality it’s still the absence of matter and things that matter. They supposed that would make them the same as everything, and it was comforting and restricting at the same time. Nowhere to escape to if you’re nothing. Maybe they already were nothing. In that case, they had nothing to lose. Nothing can’t have a something, even if something has a nothing. Like that rectangle-square rule. It just doesn’t happen. So they turned to the man.
“I shouldn’t compare it to your struggles as a black man,” they said, “but where I come from, people aren’t exactly open to the idea that you can be something other than what the doctor said you are.”
They winced, having gotten used to only hearing that word used when it was being spat at them by somebody insisting they were delusional. “Nonbinary, yeah.”
“I see. Well, I wish I could say some kind of gender war had happened to make my timeline more tolerant about that kind of thing, but it wouldn’t do either of us any good to lie.” He looked at his watch. “We should get going soon, anyway. What was it you had to tell me?”
“Oh, uh, the time stream is giving off some weird readings over here, so my team wanted you guys to watch out for that over there.”
“Understood. Thanks, kid. It was nice seeing you.”
The man stood and left the booth, leaving his empty plate to be retrieved by the waitress. The traveler wanted to go after him but decided in a split second that it would be pointless. Seeing that he made for the restroom, however, the past traveler abandoned their untouched meal as well. They may not have eaten anything, but the amount of water they’d consumed called for a bathroom break. And maybe they could say goodbye to the man, if it wasn’t too weird.
When the man reached the door, he turned around and raised a hand.
“Stop,” he said. “You don’t wanna go in there.”
“But I have to pee,” the traveler said.
“The bathroom doesn’t exist at the moment. This space has been reserved as my time portal until I reset it when I go back through.”
“Oh. So...should I use the ladies’ room?”
“That would be a smarter idea, yes.”
They hesitated. “I don’t think...you shouldn’t go.”
The man laughed. “I have to go back sometime.”
“But you aren’t happy there.”
“There’s not a lot I can do about that. I may be on the force, but I can’t go around altering things as I please.” He began to push the door open, but the traveler grabbed his arm.
“The bathroom, does it remain a portal until you go through or until you shut it off?”
“Till I shut it off. Why? You won’t get to have that kind of control for a few years.”
“No, that’s not it. And do you have something that, like, does it remotely? Or is it done at your station when you get back?”
The man reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small box. “It’s all with this thing,” he said.
Some of the buttons looked similar to what was on the control panel back at the lab. They felt slight relief at knowing they wouldn’t be working with overly complicated gadgets when they’d gone up a few ranks.
“It seems so simple,” the man continued, “now that I’m looking at it. One smash, and it could all just be over. Any time I choose to go to, I could strand myself there. It’s tempting.”
“So why don’t you?”
“It’s too unstable. A machine with the power to travel like this could be harmless, or it could doom the entire timeline. Not exactly a choice I want to make on a whim, and not one you want to make either. Remember that when you get your own.”
“Thanks. And I know you feel like you have to leave, but if you’re the one who shuts it off, you should be able to stay. I mean, there’s no schedule when you’re time traveling. And besides”—they pointed to a sign in the window of the diner reading OPEN ALWAYS AND NEVER—“this place doesn’t close anytime soon...I think? So if forever is out of the question, maybe you could at least stay for some coffee?”
It took a moment, but they could tell that the man was considering it. The remote was returned to his pocket. His smile was the most welcome thing in the world.
“I suppose that unless you have a curfew to make, I can stay a while longer.”
And in the near-empty diner in the middle of nowhere, the warmth coming from that single booth in the back, though finite and mortal, may as well have spanned across time and space. They wondered if their laughter carried over through the portals, if the scientists working the controls at each of their stations would hear it and know what was happening on the other side.