Prologue 1 – Third Century of the New Calendar, the Liberator
"What is it, Vila?"
"I had a couple of coins in my pocket when I was in Gaul and, well, I don't anymore."
"What?" Avon's voice was dangerously quiet.
"Must've fallen out of my pocket when all those Romans jumped me. You know, same time as my bracelet came off."
"Wasn't my fault! Why don't you just get Orac to take us back so I can get them?"
"And meet yourself? Have you any idea what that might do to the space-time continuum?"
"Neither do I," Avon snapped. "That is the point."
Vila shrugged. "Oh, well. It's only two coins. What would it matter?"
"If they're found centuries later and dated as old, they would change people's knowledge of the past and future. And consequently our future."
"Yeah, but since they haven't been found, they won’t be. If you get what I mean."
"Surprisingly, I do. It is one theory of time. One, however, that I don't intend to rely on as being correct."
Vila sighed, long-suffering. Why couldn't things ever be simple? "Well, all right, maybe Orac knows what happened to the coins and how we can get them back before it does."
"Now that," Orac said, "could actually be an interesting problem to solve, unlike most of the insultingly simple ones you all annoy me with."
Prologue 2 – 49BC, Gaul
Dexterus morosely swept away at the roiled-up dust of the camp's ground as part of the general tidy-up following the fight with those crazy Gauls. Most of the legionaries around him lacked helmets like him, taken as trophies by said nutters, and Dexterus was hoping he'd get that transfer soon. Invading Britain would mean he'd never see them again, especially that great Gaulish oaf who delivered menhirs – and assorted thumps and bruises – ever again.
What was that? Huh, a couple of coins that odd Gaul with the Roman hairstyle must've dropped when they all piled onto him. Pretty, too, one a sort of bluish-greeny and the other purply-pink. Curiously, Dexterus looked more closely. He'd never seen any metals that looked like that, but they had Roman letters on them. He peered at the strangely regular characters. 10 CREDITS. What was that? Io as in Io Saturnalia*? Joy to some sort of belief? "Yo Credit S", he said out loud. Didn't make sense. Of course they always shortened names on coins to the point of obscurity. The other coin said 100 CREDITS. "Yo-o", Dexterus said experimentally, drawing it out. Credit-missing-letters must be someone important, probably some bastard of a senator no one would hear of till he got a legion and way out of any area of personal competence. Dexterus turned the coins over. They both said TERRAN FEDERATION and had a round shield with a spear point over it. He scratched his head. Must be some new Roman province.
"Wotcha got there?" Pompus asked, nosy sod.
"Nothing much," Dexterus said quickly, palming the coins. Whatever they were, they were pretty and maybe they'd bring him luck in Britain.
*Io: an exclamation of joy or triumph; Saturnalia: a festival of merry-making, a predecessor to Christmas
Prologue 3 – 626 AD, Essex
Leofric brought another handful of coins to throw into the ship at the bottom of the trench. Seriously? What would King Sexred use them for in whatever afterlife he was now in? Unlike his father, Sexred had rejected Christianity and gone back to paganism, but either way, coins weren't going to be any use. Not that all those helmets, swords, and torques in the ship with Sexred's body would be either, being here rather than there, wherever there was. Leofric caught a glimpse of not-gold in his hand and paused, curiously. Two unusual coins, maybe from Constantinople or somewhere else exotic. Could be worth more than gold, you never knew.
Look, old Sexred wasn't going to use them, was he? Leofric shoved several, including the weird ones, down a trouser leg and tossed the remainder into the ship. Nice little nest egg, that. Of course he'd have to bury them for a few years so it wouldn't look suspicious when he started spending them.
The pub was called Two Brewers – twice as good as one, that'd be. They probably served real ale, Vila thought with anticipation as he went in. And indeed they did, along with lunch, and both would go down nicely. Vila watched people paying, then did a quick tour of the place to acquire enough local cash for his immediate needs.
He leaned against the bar, sipping a very nice porter, as he listened to two blokes talking about things they'd found. It sounded like a lot of old rubbish – a dented buckle, a musket ball or possibly an eroded ball bearing, a pre-decimal penny – but that didn't seem to worry them. Vila sidled closer and asked the thin one, "Are you metal detectorers, then?"
"Detectorists actually. But ten points for not calling us detectors."
"Well, you wouldn't be, would you? They're the things you use."
"Absolutely. Not many people get that." The thin man grinned and raised his beer. "I'm Andy by the way, and this is Lance."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Vila."
"Vila?" Andy tilted his head. "As in Roman villa?"
Vila sniggered, remembering the legionaries' reaction to his name. "Nah, only the one L. Look, what you do sounds really interesting."
Andy's face lit up with pleasure (and a certain amount of surprise). "Oh, it is. You never know what you might find."
"You wouldn't be interested in joining the DMDC, would you?" asked Lance eagerly.
Vila looked wary, being naturally suspicious of groups of initials. "The what?"
"Danebury Metal Detecting Club. We had an open day recently, but, well, not many turned up."
None, Vila suspected. "Sorry, I'm just passing through. But I'd really like to see what you do anyway." He looked at them both hopefully.
"As it happens," Andy said, "we're going out this afternoon. You can come with us if you like."
"I would! Tell you what, I'll buy you lunch in return."
"Cheers, mate," said Lance. "Very kind of you, especially since I don't seem to have as much money on me as I thought when I came in."
It was actually rather pleasant, ambling across the fields in the warm autumn sun hearing birds and insects and watching Andy and Lance as they slowly and methodically swept their detectors over the grass and occasionally mentioned that week's Mastermind or detectorists of their acquaintance who had come to unexpected and dismaying ends in the pursuit of their hobby. Not that it seemed all that dangerous to Vila, but he supposed it depended on where they'd been detecting.
Lance suddenly stopped. "I've got something." He placed his detector to one side and started digging. "Got it! Another ring pull." He held it up close to his eyes and squinted. "A Tizer, late 1990s, unless I'm very much mistaken. That's when they made them wider. One for the collection." He put it in his bag. "'Ring pulls through the ages'," he explained to Vila.
"'Decades' would be more accurate," Andy pointed out.
"'Ages' has more of a ring to it," said Lance. "To coin a phrase, although I hadn't intended to. It has weight and dignity."
Unlike the collection itself, Vila thought.
"A fascinating subject, ring pulls," Lance went on as he carefully filled the hole back in. "You can date them by size, shape, and often colour."
"Interesting," Vila said, trying to look as if he meant it. Oh well, at least they were heading in the right direction according to Orac. Should be easy, this. Get them to the right place so they found the coins like Orac said they did, and nick the credits before they saw them. "Maybe you'll find some more."
"Ooh, I doubt that. One is one more than the typical day's haul, unless you find several together."
They moved on, sweeping the ground in companionable silence broken only by an occasional comment from Andy or Lance. Vila relaxed, enjoying the slow pace and general lack of excitement, danger, and sudden death. Maybe that was the attraction for these two. And the companionship of course. It'd be nice being part of an easy friendship like that without all the stress of rebelling against oppressive governments and having to keep up with Avon in the ongoing insult competition.
It was Andy who made the next find: a button.
"Is that all?" Vila wrinkled his nose in disappointment.
"All?" Andy said, surprised. "It's a piece of the past. Look, it's got some sort of engraving on it. There are websites where I can look that up. Maybe it came off a soldier's uniform, who knows. We're walking on history, Vila." He paused. "Right, time to turn around and work our way back."
"Eh?" They couldn't do that! "What about those rocks up there?"
"Big field; we can come back another day."
"I can't though! Can't we just keep going to them, then go back?"
Andy wrinkled his forehead. "Why?"
"Well, where would you bury something valuable if you wanted to find it again? Somewhere you'd remember to come back to."
"Point, mate," Lance said. "He's got a point, Andy."
Andy looked at Lance. "It's a thought," he said slowly. "All right, why not?"
"There is something there," Andy started digging and unearthed a small dirty object. "Oh. Just a toy car," he said in disgust.
"That's encouraging," said Vila.
Andy regarded him in disbelief. "You kidding?" He started filling the hole back in.
"Look, if a kid thought this was a good place to bury something important, someone else might have too. Perfect place to bury treasure, between these two big rocks. Give it another go. Worth a try," Vila said in desperation. Avon would be right pissed off if he didn’t get those coins back. Or if Vila messed up the future, though in that case Avon wouldn't exist.
"He's right, Andy!" Lance said with a sudden shiver. "I've got a feeling."
Andy shrugged. "Nuts, the both of you. Okay, fine." He started sweeping to one side of the hole as Lance took the other.
"Ummm," he said after a couple of minutes, "There might be something here. Could be a false reading though."
"It's not," said Lance with conviction, coming to join him. "Shift over, I'll help you dig."
At the glint of gold in the soil, both of them stopped still, sitting back on their heels.
"We found it," Lance said in a strange voice. "We found the ship burial. The Saxon hoard."
Then to Vila's astonishment, they started capering wildly around the hole. "What's going on? What are you doing?" he asked.
"The dance of gold," Lance said.
"Goooold," Andy crowed, waving his arms and kicking his legs up. "We dance the dance of gold!"
"Oh, a detectorist thing, then?" Vila leaned over the hole. "Right, let's have a look." He stuck a hand in, intending to get hold of his coins before they were seen.
"Oi!" Andy stopped dancing and pushed Vila's hand aside. "Our find!" He knelt and started digging again.
"Etiquette of the dig, mate," Lance explained. "Sorry."
"That's all right." Vila stepped back and watched as Andy unearthed several coins, all clustered together.
"I think that's all of it," Andy said, looking at a small pile of dirty coins.
"Yeah, you can see a bit of leather there." Lance pointed into the hole. "Must've been in a pouch originally."
Andy picked them the coins up and started cleaning them with a cloth, while Vila hopped from foot to foot, wondering how to get his credits back. Andy whooped suddenly. "They're Saxon! It's a hoard!"
"A very small hoard," said Lance, "but technically true."
"Hang on." Andy peered into his hand. "What are these two? Definitely not gold."
Lance and Vila crowded in to look. "Maybe they discoloured in the ground," Lance said.
"Ten credits," Andy rubbed at one. "And a hundred credits."
"Yer what?" Lance turned one over. "Terran Federation?" he said disbelievingly. "Like in some space opera?"
"Yeah, definitely not Saxon, then," Andy said in disgust.
"Must be a joke," Vila said tentatively. "Someone stuck them in there with the others."
"No one," Lance said, "would dig up gold coins and put them back. Or," he added, "go to the trouble of making them. Fake Saxon ones, well that'd be those Antiquisearcher bastards trying to put one over on us. But what would be the point of adding some, I dunno, science fiction game counters?"
Andy looked accusingly at Vila. "You knew they were here. You buried them."
"No, really." Vila held his hands up in defence. "It's like Lance said, why would I do that? I mean, I did know they were there, I admit that, but I just wanted to get my two back." He grabbed his long-lost (or only-just-lost, depending on how you looked at it) Federation coins. "That's all, see? Rest of 'em are all yours."
"You have to admit, Andy, they look real," Lance said.
"Oh, they are!" Vila said quickly. "They've been right there, waiting for you, for thirteen hundred and ninety years." All right, that was a bad mistake going by Andy and Lance's expressions. "Um, give or take a year or two," he said quickly, with the distinct sense that he was digging himself into a deep hole.
"None of this makes sense." Andy looked down at the seven gold coins in his hand. "Unless Vila can explain." He turned to narrow his eyes at Vila. "And I think he can. Vila?"
All right." Vila hung his head in defeat. "Time travel. Not that we meant to, mind."
"Time travel." Andy just looked at him.
"It does explain it," Lance said. "I don't necessarily believe it, but it does explain it."
"I need a bit more of an explanation than that," said Andy. "Go on, tell me more."
"Well," Vila gabbled, "we went back in time by mistake after getting too close to a black hole and Avon sent me down from orbit to find out how far back and I got into a bit of a fight with some Roman legionaries along with a bunch of Gauls – nice chaps, the Gauls – and must've dropped the coins which one of the legionaries took to Britain when they invaded and they became sort of heirlooms that Orac traced through threads of probability – don't ask – till a Saxon buried them here where they were till you dug them up today."
Andy and Lance stood there in stunned silence for a few minutes. "All ri-ight," Andy said at last. "So if you hadn't shown us where they were, we wouldn't have found them?"
"Yeah, that's the bit I don't get either. I suppose if I hadn't come here, then, well, I didn’t and they'd still be in the ground. But I did and you've got them. The old closed time loop."
"You're from the future. The Terran Federation. All right, if that's true, what's it like? Star Trek utopia, that sort of thing?"
Vila sensed existential danger. "Can't say any more. I'll muck it all up, change what'll happen."
"Yeah, well, if you had, you'd know, wouldn't you," Andy said.
"Assuming you're not your basic nutter, of course," Lance said.
"Which reminds me, I should get rid of this." Vila pulled out the present-day money he'd bought the lunch and drinks with. "Have a couple on me," he said, though much of it was in effect on Lance. "I'd better be off now. Thanks for the help and a fun day and agreeing with my theory of time, even if certain arrogant intellectuals don't. Speaking of which…" he pressed a button on his bracelet and raised it to speak into it. "All done here, Avon. Bring me up." He was briefly outlined in light before disappearing.
Andy and Lance stood there in stunned silence.
"Time traveller," Andy said at last. "From something called the Terran Federation."
"Looks like it."
"I don't think we ought to say anything about this to anyone."
"I would concur, Andy. We shall never speak of this again."
"We found a Saxon hoard."
"I'd say a celebration is in order."
"It is indeed."
"Fancy a pint?"