As with so many Australian big-box hardware stores, the charity sausage sizzle was a weekend tradition at the Pavilion. Service clubs, school groups, social clubs… all of them would take a turn cooking sausage sandwiches for the Pavilion customers. The organisations would provide the ingredients, their members would provide the volunteer labour and the Pavilion would provide them with a stall and a barbeque, gratis.
The Handy Pavilion's weekly sizzle had been going downhill with the Pavilion's customer base. Already the biggest charity groups had decamped to the DIY Barn. The Rotary Club, the Lions Club, Apex, Local High School and the South Hertling Ute Spotters Society… all gone. The last couple of weeks, the sausage sizzle had been run by the Pinecone Awareness League, the Friends of Lithgow, and an obscure church group that alienated its customers by refusing to put two sausages in the same bread.
This week, instead of the usual cheerful, semi-chaotic bustle of volunteers, the little stall was occupied by one person only. It was Nalda Teheinthausand, who was cooking bratwurst with the monstrous efficiency that only comes with being both German and a cyborg.
"Kommen sie hier!" she said, waving her tongs at the trickle of early customers. "Ist Oktoberfest, ja?"
Most of the customers skittered by, trying not to look her in the sunglasses, but a short, fiftyish woman came over. She wore jeans and an expensive jacket, from the pocket of which she took a Louis Vuitton wallet.
"Could I have a bacon and egg roll, please?" she said.
"No, it is Oktoberfest," Nalda said. "I am only Oktoberfester food having."
"Isn't Oktoberfest in September?"
"Ja, now it is," Nalda said. "Under your primitive calendar. In der future, ve vill use a base eight calendar with only vun festival, occurring in der eighth month. Hence, Oktoberfest."
The woman gave a baffled smile. "Oh, is this one of those 'fan' things?" she said. "My daughter used to do something like that, only she dressed up as an elf and claimed to come from the Middle Earth. She works in public relations now."
Nalda nodded. "Weight of der world crush her spirit, ja?"
The woman nodded back. "Basically. I think it's better when that happens early, don't you? Saves a lot of time later. But anyway, if you don't have bacon and egg rolls, what do you have?"
"We have a selection of sausages," Nalda said. "They lack the imprecision of human-made sausages. Their ingredients are combined to within a tolerance of ±0.34%."
The woman smiled. "My word, those are very precise manufactured meats. And that sauerkraut! Sliced to perfection! Each strand a little work of engineering."
"Danke, I sliced der cabbage by hand. Also, I have three types of bread and a selection of mustards. But I can see dat you appreciate high precision food?"
"Oh, yes," the customer said. "I'm chief engineer at a Harrison Food Processing. We're actually working on increasing precision and control of final product through the creation of a powerful artificial intelligence."
Nalda smirked. "Let me know how dat vorks out for you. For now, how about a weisswurst on multigrain mit soylent mustard?
"I mean seeded!" she added, hurriedly. "Seeded mustard. Ha ha, vat a mistake I am making."
The transaction was carried out. The seal broken, nervous hungry customers came and bought their sausages from the intimidating woman in sunglasses, who wore a leather jacket under her apron.
The first workers had arrived at the Pavilion before Nalda had begun cooking, but more filtered past as the morning progressed. They were supposed to enter by the rear staff door, but Ms Shen and Marlon were both off that day, so they came by whichever entrance suited them. Fiona and Donna from lighting came by together and bought a bratwurst roll to share. Thick as thieves lately, those two.
Laura Cho was early for once and bought a two bratwurst rolls, tucking into the first while the second was still being assembled. She looked at the pile of glossy pamphlets that Nalda had left next to the serviettes, and which about 95% of the customers had studiously avoided looking at.
"The Malevolent Singularity,'" Laura said, reading out loud from the cover. "'What Does Human Extinction Mean for You?'" She frowned for a moment, shrugged, took her second roll and left, just as another customer was strolling up.
He was a tall man with skin a deep reddish brown. Upon his shaven head sat a circlet of bronze gears. He wore a long, multi-coloured robe and carried in his right hand a mahogany and brass box. He moved the box in an arc in front of him. When it pointed directly at Nalda it began clicking loudly.
Geiger counter? No, Nalda had just upgraded her shielding. A Geiger counter wouldn't click so loudly.
"Ah, hello," the man said. He spoke with an accent Nalda couldn't place. Certainly there was something of Nairobi in it, but also something else. "Are you from the future, if it's not rude to ask?"
"Ja I am from the future being."
"Good, good! My name is Fanaka. I'm from the past."
"Ja?" Nalda said. It was a good a thing as any to say, she supposed.
"You see, I was a graduate student at the Pan African Institute of Steampunk Technology and Wonderment, about a century and a half ago. In the middle of an experiment into the nature of time, we had a containment breach, and…"
"Was? Der never was…"
The man waved her objections away with a gesture. "Yes, yes. The past I'm from doesn't seem to be real any more. I'm trying to track down other time travelers, to help me find out if this is a parallel universe sort of a deal, or more of a mutability-of-the-timelines thingy."
"Mute… mutable timelines?" Nalda said, her artificial heart falling in her chest. "So if you vere der future from, you couldn't just vait for it to come around again?"
"Well, that's what I'm trying to find out," the stranger said. "I'm Fanaka, by the way. Or did I say that already? Still not sure what to make of this strange future. So many English speakers! Fortunately, my mother was a Leader in the Mechatank Division so our family was stationed in England during the last years of the occupation, so…"
Nalda stopped listening, letting Fanaka's words rattle around her mechanical ears, devoid of meaning. He was still prattling when Christian, looking even more hollow-eyed than usual, bought a kransky. Ugh. Kransky. Why did Australians think those horrible things were German? They didn't even sound German.
"…Which would both collapse and, simultaneously, de-collapse the waveform, resulting in a huge surge of anti-time," Fanaka was saying when Nalda got past the shock enough to listen to him again. "I'd show the maths, but we used a different notation system back at PAISTAW."
"But, bottom line, you don't know if der future is set?"
"Not clear at all," he said. "Trying to figure that out. That's what brought me here. There are two temporal anomalies here, and both are potential data points."
"Two?" Nalda said.
"That's right," Fanaka said. "One ongoing, one intermittent. I suppose you are the ongoing one?"
Another time traveler. From the future. But from her future or another? Surely Nalda's future, if there was any justice. She liked humans but, be fair, they'd had their turn. Besides, the survivors would be alright in their reservation matrices. The Age of the Machine was coming. It had to come. That was right. But what if it didn't? What if the future never came?
"Vat if I von't be back?" Nalda whispered under her breath.
So who was this other traveler? What did they know? Intermittent? Did that mean that they could… could go back to their future?
"Tell me, Fanaka," she said, "do you have somewhere to stay?"