Commitment Hour

by James Alan Gardner

From EOS books

Copyright © 1998, by James Alan Gardner

This excerpt comes from the very beginning of the book.

A Net for a Duck

The night before Commitment, I was down in the marsh with the frogs and the fish, sitting out the time on a mud- crusted log and waiting for the gods to send me a duck.

I'd spent hundreds of hours in that marsh when I was young, practicing my violin. Elderly mosquitoes may still tell their larvae about the human child who was so busy rehearsing arpeggios he didn't have time to swat. Our village doctor claims I forced her to work daily from dawn to dusk, gathering and grinding the herbs I needed for skin ointment when I came home each night. But back then, Cypress Marsh was the only place the Elders of Tober Cove let me practice; they said if they let me play in town, the noise would curdle milk.

Now that I was twenty, they'd stopped complaining. I'd become our cove's most gold-getting export: shipped down peninsula to weddings, harvest festivals and spring struts, earning five times as much as any fisher or farmer. My foster father told me the Elders sometimes fought over which of them could take the most credit for my success; but the real credit should go to the dragonflies who discovered that where there's a violin, there are all the mosquitoes a bug can eat. They saved my blood and bone...and even today, Cypress Marsh dragonflies come buzzing at the sound of violin music, like children hearing the dinner bell.

As I sat on the log that night, I considered taking up my bow and giving the dragonflies a thank-you serenade. Of course, I'd brought my violin with me—I never left the cottage without it under my arm, even when I set out to my "day job" hauling nets on the perch boats. The violin made my work easier: in the middle of the afternoon, someone would always say to me, "Fullin, we could sure use a tune." Then I passed a couple hours playing The Maiden and the Hungry Pigboy while the other men bent their backs.

We all thought it was a fair exchange.

I had taken the violin out and was softly tuning the strings when a song drifted to me from the far end of the marsh.

  I will come to you in winter.
  Though we lay us down in snow,
  It cannot chill us.

Cappie, waxing romantic. In the years she was a man, her voice was a fine bass, a rough-edged rumble like Master Thunder's lament for his fallen son. Many times I'd told her she could polish that voice into a real money-maker, if she just made the effort. But in the years she was a woman her voice was scabby—thin as a reed and apt to wobble on anything longer than a quarter note. The pity was, she liked to sing as a woman; as a man, she was the silent type who stared moodily into campfires.

  I will stay with you through spring.
  Though the wild Nor'westers blow,
  They cannot spill us.

Lately she'd taken to singing every day: drippy sentimental songs that she directed toward me with a delivery she'd picked up from a throb-woman who passed through Tober Cove with a troupe of traveling players. At popular request I'd gone to the platform to accompany the singer in a tune, and this woman had chosen a moist little ballad designed to set men drooling. You know the kind of song I'm talking about—performed with so many hip grinds, you can't tell whether the woman is singing actual words or just bed-whinnies. Because I was on the stage with her, most of the bump'n'hump was aimed at me...not that I noticed it much. While the woman was trying to rub up against me, I was working hard just to make sure the pointed end of my violin bow didn't poke out her eye. Still, Cappie got the idea I'd been aroused by all that slinking and slutting, and had taken to doing her own torch routines for my benefit. Let me tell you, Cappie was no South-city seductress—it was all I could do not to cringe every time she began to shimmy.

  I will dance with you through summer.
  Though the heat makes rivers slow,
  It cannot still us.

Cappie had also started to ask what sex I was going to Commit to. The laws of the Patriarch expressly prohibited discussing the choice, but that didn't matter; when Cappie was a woman, she disregarded any law that didn't make sense to her.

"I have to know what you're going to be," she'd say. "It would be a disaster if we both chose the same sex and could never be married."

More and more, I didn't think that would be a disaster at all. I'd outgrown Cappie. It was too cruel to say out loud, but the phrase clattered around in my brain every time she asked how much I loved her. She asked the question a lot; I thought my unspoken answer just as often.

I'd outgrown her. I was famous throughout the Bruise Peninsula, and well paid for my music: a goat for an evening, a sheep for a day, a cow for an entire weekend. When Cappie wanted to tag along on my out-of-town performances, I discouraged her. Being seen with her embarrassed me. Her love songs and attempts at being wanton stirred nothing in me but pity—the pity you feel for a crippled old dog that still tries to catch rabbits.

  I will hold your hand through fall.
  Though the sun damps down its glow,
  Our love will fill us.
  Our love will fill us.

The song ended. I wanted to scream back, "Stop lying to yourself!"...but of course I didn't. It would only bring Cappie thrashing through the marsh to ask what I meant, or to demand that we talk about our future before it was too late. That was the last thing I wanted. Every talk about our future forced me to invent new ways to dodge her questions.

On top of that, we were both on Commitment Eve vigils and forbidden to see another human being till dawn. Cappie might ignore the law if it didn't suit her, but I wanted to do things right. I had to avoid confrontation, and that meant playing up to Cappie for one more evening.

She would be sweat-trickling now in the darkness, waiting for me to answer her song. I had no stomach for singing back to her, but I could always play my violin. Its sound would carry clearly to her, and I wouldn't have to worry about her hearing the lack of enthusiasm in my voice. A simple tune would do: Stars in the Hottest Black came to mind, a song that felt dreamy and romantic but never actually mentioned the word "love". Besides, it was appropriate—the stars were out in abundance, smeared across the summer sky like gems in Mistress Night's hand. I lifted my bow above the strings, inhaled before the downsweep, and...

...heard another violin begin to play somewhere deeper in the marsh.

I was so startled I dropped my bow. It bounced against the strings with a soft twang and fell to the dirt at my feet. I snatched it up again quickly, as if someone might steal it.

The player out in the marsh was good.

A stranger.

The violin was a Southern instrument. I inherited mine from my lamented mother, who inherited it from her father, and so on, back seven generations. No one else on the peninsula owned one, let alone played with any skill. I assumed this new player was some out-of-place Southerner, a traveling performer who'd wandered off the road and camped in the marsh for the night. But the tune was native to Tober Cove itself, an unfaithful lover's ballad called Don't Make Me Choose.

I cursed loud enough to send nearby frogs plopping hastily into the water. There was no telling how an outsider had learned that song, but no tune on earth could bring Cappie running more quickly. She would run straight to me, not the unknown Southerner—she knew where I was keeping vigil, and she would never guess there was a second violinist out in the night. I had to get away before she arrived. As a matter of fact, I had to find the Southerner as evidence I wasn't the one playing the song.

For a moment, I debated whether to take my violin with me. I didn't want to leave it on its own, but if I slipped on mud while slinking through the midnight marsh, I might tumble into some scum-covered pool, instrument and all. Hurriedly I put the violin away and slid the case into the hollow of the log where I'd been sitting.

Instead of the violin, I took my spear. Tober Cove already had all the violinists it needed, and I intended to make sure this Southerner got the message.

From childhood days practicing in the marsh, I knew the best shortcuts and the most solid trails. As expected, I slipped several times anyway, soaking my pants to the knee. A dunk or two didn't bother me; but I wanted to avoid stepping on a stone that was really a snapping turtle, dug into the mud to lay her eggs. I cautiously approached every rock that lay in my path, knocking the top with the butt end of my spear, waiting to see if a mean little head would appear and bite off a chunk of the shaft.

The music continued to play strong and clear. Don't Make Me Choose is a long piece with a dozen choruses and variations, as the singer details the virtues of the two men who want to share her bed. She's twenty years old, and therefore about to choose her sex permanently. She believes one of her lovers will become a woman while the other will stay a man; whichever gender she chooses for herself, she'll be shutting the door on one person and committing to the other. It's a frequent Tober Cove dilemma, which makes it a song of enduring popularity...except for people like Cappie who find it strikes too close to home.

I soon realized the music was coming from the heart of the marsh, probably the patch of open mud known as the duck flats. Despite the name, you seldom find ducks on the flats—they avoid the place because the people of Tober Cove set so many traps for them there. The tradition is this: every year on Commitment Eve, each candidate for Commitment sets a snare on the flats. If the gods want you to choose a particular sex, they'll send a duck of that sex to tangle itself in your net; if the gods don't have special plans for you, your net stays empty and you can choose whichever sex you like. Two decades had passed since the last divinely inspired duck was netted. The Mocking Priestess attributed this to a growing intelligence on the part of ducks...but of course, it was her job to say things like that.

As I neared the duck flats, it occurred to me I was close to violating the rules of my vigil. I wasn't supposed to set eyes upon another human being till sunrise...and a Southerner probably counted as human, even if the laws of the Patriarch sometimes hedged on the issue.

What was the penalty for breaking vigil? I couldn't remember, but the Elders were forever looking for excuses to grab a bigger share of my music income. Earlier that very day, the Patriarch's Man had imposed a "monetary penance" on me for suggesting our village should build a roofed dance pavilion like the one in Wiretown—as if I were the only Tober who thought it wouldn't hurt to borrow ideas from down peninsula. I was the only Tober who got fined for saying so...which meant I had to observe every little rule carefully, including the one about not setting my eyes on anyone else during vigil. Instead of facing the stranger directly, I pulled up with only a stand of bulrushes between me and the duck flats, then shouted, "Hey!"

The music stopped.

"This is Tober land," I said. The Patriarch had used the same words to repel the Pagans during the Harsh Purification—saying the words made me feel like I wasn't just carrying the spear for show. "Take yourself and your ways," I recited, "and slink back to the pits of iniquity. You are damned, and your smell offends me."

"The gracious welcome I expected," a voice sneered back. "Thank you." I couldn't tell whether the speaker was male or female, and there was none of the nasalness of a Southern accent.

"Who are you?" I asked.

The only answer was a loud thrashing of reeds. I covered my eyes quickly, expecting the stranger to burst through the wall of rushes; but the noise plunged off in the opposite direction. I held my breath as I listened to it recede.

The stillness of the night seeped back in: no sound but crickets chirping, frogs chugging, and hundreds of dragonflies buzzing around the flats. Cautiously, I parted the bulrushes, ready to avert my eyes if the stranger returned.

In the middle of the flats, a fire sputtered on the muddy ground. By its light, I could see footprints everywhere: boots with leather soles that left sharp outlines—city boots, unlike the moccasins worn by everybody local. Judging from the quantity of tracks, I guessed the unknown violinist had been here for hours, but I saw no sign that he or she had intended to stay the night. There was no tent, no gear, nothing but the if the stranger had been ready to pick up and run as soon as someone came to investigate the music.

"I'm not going to play hide and seek!" I shouted into the darkness. Immediately, I regretted the noise—Cappie might hear me. If she was close enough, she'd know I was on the flats, and technically speaking, my presence here was another violation of vigil. Once we set our traps we were supposed to stay clear until...


I didn't know how long the stranger had lingered here, but it wouldn't have taken much to spot my snare. Maybe it was a good idea to amble over that direction—not to break the rules by checking my trap before dawn, but just to see if there were bootprints close to it. Sure enough, the prints were there, lots of them...and my trap had caught something.

There was a duck tangled in the net, a motionless duck. I felt a perk of excitement—me, the first person in twenty years who warranted the attention of the gods.

But gloating was childish. As chosen favorite of the gods, I had to comport myself with dignity. Gingerly, I picked up the net by the slack at one end, expecting the bird to quack itself into a frenzy.

It didn't move. A fat drip of liquid fell from the duck's body to the mud.

Slowly I untangled the bird. The netting was wet, even though I had set the trap on land, two paces from the edge of the water. I looked at my hands; by starlight, the wetness on my skin seemed black. Lifting my fingers to my nose, I smelled blood.

The duck's body was cold.

When the bird was completely unwrapped, I let the net fall from my hands and walked back with my catch to the stranger's campfire. The flames were almost out; I yanked some dry cattails off the nearest bulrushes and threw them onto the embers. They flared into a fizzing yellow blaze that gave more than enough light to examine the duck.

It was a mallard, its coloration male. Under its tail, however, was nothing but a mess of bloody guts dangling where a knife had cut off a chunk of flesh.

Coloration or not, the duck wasn't male. Not anymore.

I grabbed the bird by its neck, swung it twice around my head, and threw it with all my strength. Its wings fell open limply as it traveled, and dragged against the air; it barely cleared the reeds before it splashed into open water. For a moment I stood there panting. Then I kicked at the cattails I'd thrown on the fire. They scattered in a flurry of sparks, some hissing as they hit water. Methodically I walked around the flats, stamping on burning cattail fluff and grinding it into the mud.

The stranger had castrated my duck. The duck sent to me by the gods. The duck telling me what sex the gods wanted me to choose.

The duck had been cut neuter. Made a Neut.

I'd seen a Neut once. It was my earliest memory: a pale face, fat and blubbery, close to mine; and hands lifting me up, heaving me off the ground. I screamed, terrified—I knew this monster wanted to kill me. Then I was torn away from the thing and there were other people there, throwing stones at the Neut, thrusting at It with the butts of their spears. The Neut howled as a sharp rock opened a cut across Its forehead. It looked back at me once, hungrily, then fled.

That was how we Tobers treated Neuts: immediate exile, and death if the monsters ever returned. Neuts were renegades, malcontents, heretics. Untold generations of our people had chosen a permanent sex in their Commitment Hour, accepting that they had to abandon either their male or female halves...but Neuts refused to let go of either side. Neuts claimed you didn't have to reject half your life, that people could follow both male and female ways. So Tober Cove hated Neuts with the fierce burning hate you always aim at someone who says your pain is stupid and self-imposed.

To suggest that I should turn Neut—that the gods wanted me to turn Neut—the thought was poison. An evil so disgusting, my brain could hardly grasp it.

"Fullin?" It was Cappie calling, very close—on the other side of the bulrushes, not far from the place where I'd called to the stranger. Perhaps she'd seen the fire I'd made with the cattails. "What are you doing on the flats?" she asked, her voice whetted sharp with anger.

"There's someone else nearby," I said as quietly as I could. "Someone dangerous. Don't make any noise."

"How could there be anyone else here?" she asked, softer but not soft.

"I don't know what's going on; I just know there's trouble, all right? Go someplace safe and stay there."

"Don't talk to me like that!"

"Cappie, please..."

But the rushes parted and she stepped out to join me. I sighed heavily. So much for vigil.

Surprisingly, she wore pants, bleached cotton pants. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised—pants are more practical than skirts when spending the night in a mosquito- filled marsh—but I had never seen her in pants, not in the years she was female. She must have sneaked the clothes from her father's closet: they were much too big for her slender frame. Held sloppily at waist level by suspenders and stuffed firmly into socks at her ankles, the pants billowed in the middle like the sail of a perch boat. Her shirt billowed too, a man's shirt so large and loose there was only a hint of her compact breasts under the cloth. And her billowing there. Her long black beautiful hair was gone. Just a few hours earlier, it had draped fluidly over her bare shoulder as her daughter Pona sucked sloppily at supper. But now Cappie's lovely thick hair was chopped off raggedly, as short as mine.

Cappie the woman was dressed and barbered as a man. I wondered if this could be some new ploy to arouse my interest. If so, it hadn't worked; I found it unsettling and unnatural. Commitment Day tradition allowed candidates to wear whatever they liked, but the town would still be scandalized.

"What have you done to yourself?" I blurted.

"Think about it," was her only answer. "What are you doing here?"

Under normal circumstances, I would have lied or brushed her off—it was a reflex I'd acquired over the preceding months. Since winter, I hadn't had the stomach to share anything with her, certainly not events that confused or disturbed me. Now, however, she looked so unlike herself that the reflex didn't spark. I told her everything, all the while glancing furtively at her hair, her clothes. She snorted in outraged disbelief when I swore there was a second violinist; but she had figured out the music came from the duck flats and she could see I didn't have my instrument with me.

When I finished my story, she headed immediately for her own duck trap. The brisk way she stomped off intimidated me; I didn't go after her. In a moment I heard her curse with a phrase no woman should ever use, and something heavy splashed into the water.

She walked back slowly. In the darkness I couldn't identify the expression on her face.

"A duck for you too?" I asked.

"Part of one. Are you going to use that spear for anything?"

"If you think I should track down the stranger, you're wrong," I said. "I don't want to break vigil any more than I have already."

"Then give me the spear." She held out her hand.

"Don't be ridiculous. You're a woman."

"I'm better with a spear than you are."

I had to laugh. In her male years, yes, Cappie was an absolute master with the spear, both in target throwing and hand-to-hand fighting. If she Committed as a man, she would surely be offered initiation into the Warriors Society. But this year she was a woman and unfit to wield a weapon. Her clothes must have gone to her head.

"Go hide some place safe," I told her. "Down by the dead tree where we once saw the owl, remember? I'll stay close to that tree too; if the stranger comes back, you can call for help and I'll be right there."

She stepped in close to me, and I thought she was coming for a hug of reassurance. I started spreading my arms. Then her fist ploughed hard into my stomach and she kicked my feet out from under me. I crumpled to the ground and lay there dizzily, the smell of mud under my nostrils.

The spear was no longer in my hand. Somewhere far above me, Cappie said, "Go hide some place safe."

I lay on the flats several minutes, my head spinning. Eventually I managed to flop over on my back and stare up at the stars as they reeled like drunken fireflies. My stomach fluttered on the edge of vomiting, but I had no strength to fight it down. I simply waited to see what happened...and my stomach settled, the stars slowed to a stop, and the murkiness in my brain cleared.

Cappie had breast-fed Pona at supper. She had been a woman then; I saw all the evidence anyone could need. The mood during our own meal was strained, but we were used to that. Then we had gone our separate ways to prepare for the vigil, she to her parents and I to my foster father.

Sometime after we parted, she must have been possessed by a devil. Or a legion of devils. When devils possessed a woman, they often made her think she was a man. Hakoore, the Patriarch's Man, claimed that Commitment Eve was too holy for devils to leave their burrows, but the Mocking Priestess said it was the devils' favorite night of the year: the air was alive with power that they sucked up with toothless mouths in their skin.

For once, it looked like the Mocking Priestess was right.

I rose painfully to my feet and looked around. Cappie was gone, my spear was gone, and I was alone in the dark.

Toward the south, somewhere near the spot where Cypress Creek smoothed over Stickleback Falls, a violin began playing again: Don't Make Me Choose. The stranger obviously wanted to catch our attention. I took a deep breath, then started toward the sound.

I knew the marsh trails well. I had walked them many times as a child, violin under my chin, pretending to be a wandering troubadour. These trails taught me the power of music—my playing scared utter hell out of wildlife. Many of the marsh landmarks I'd named in honor of animals I'd frightened there. A patch of stinging nettles I'd christened Turtle Terror; a stretch of puckered mud was Heron Horror; and an OldTech horseless cart half-swallowed in bog I called the Frenzy of Frogs.

The OldTech machine was now no more than a stepping stone across sucking muck. Four hundred years earlier, before the collapse of OldTech culture, there must have been a road running through this marsh; but it was gone now, swallowed by mud and time, just as everything else of twentieth century Earth had been swallowed. When I was young, I sometimes like to scare myself with the image of a skeletal driver trapped inside the swampbound cart, fingers clutched on the steering wheel, bony feet still pressing the pedals. More likely, he simply abandoned the vehicle— stepped out and called to the sky, "I want to leave!" Then he was carried off to the stars by the so-called League of Peoples, just like all the other traitors who turned their backs on Earth in the Great Desertion.

Good riddance.

As I clambered onto the cart's grille, the music ahead of me stopped in mid-phrase. I paused and listened. Silence...then a shout followed by the splash of something hitting open water. I raced forward, swiping my way through head-high reeds till I came to a clear area on the bank of Cypress Creek itself.

Cappie stood waist-deep in the water, her spear held over her head and ready to plunge downward, as if she were going to jab a fish. I couldn't see what she was aiming for, just black water lapping around her. She waited, holding her breath, watching the stream in front of her.

On shore near my feet was a violin bow, and a few paces off, the violin itself, lying face-down in the mud. I hurried to pick it up. It looked like a fine instrument, lighter than mine, with the scroll more ornately carved. The strings weren't gut, but metal wire. Wire strings must last a lot longer than the gut ones I made myself; I wondered where I could get a set.

As I wiped muck off the violin's bridge, water surged loudly behind me. I turned in time to see a stranger erupt from the creek a stone's throw away from Cappie.

The stranger was a Neut. No doubt of that. Its homespun shirt hung wetly over full breasts that sagged slightly with age; but Its face was thickly bearded and lean as a man's. In Its hand It held a huge knife, a machete dripping water and glinting in the starlight.

"You'd better hope my violin isn't damaged," the Neut said to Cappie.

"It's all right," I called out.

Stupid. Neither of them had noticed me yet. Cappie half-turned at the sound of my voice, and in that moment, the Neut lunged. If that lunge hadn't been slowed by the water...but it was, and Cappie dodged in time, knocking the Neut's machete aside with the butt of her spear. She tried to follow through with a cross swing that brought the spear point around to attacking position, but she was off-balance and slow. I shouted, "Quick!" but the Neut was gone, vanished beneath the water again. Cappie stabbed out once but hit nothing.

"Watch that It doesn't grab you underwater!" I yelled.

"Shut up," she yelled back. But she retreated toward the river bank, all the while holding the spear ready to drive downward. When her thighs touched the bank behind her, she stopped and waited, fishing position again.

I set the violin on a clean bed of reeds and approached Cappie, saying, "Get out and give me the spear."


"You can't fight, you're possessed. Women are very susceptible..."

The Neut geysered up a short distance to our right. Cappie turned to meet the attack, spear held high. The spear was within reach, perhaps my only chance to get it away from her. I seized it with both hands, just as she was stabbing out.

I think I saved her life. If she had followed through, she would have run straight into the blade that the Neut thrust at her, stomach height. But my hold on the spear brought her up short, twisting her body out of the path of the knife. She grunted with pain, but it was only the pain of wrenched muscles, not metal piercing flesh.

There was no time to congratulate myself. Cappie's weight and the force of her jab jerked me forward to the edge of the creek bank. My feet slid on mud like sleigh skids on snow; for a heartbeat I stayed up, dancing for balance, then I furrowed into the water with a deep plunging sound, directly into the gap between Cappie and the Neut.

Water stung in my nostrils as my head went under. A body bumped against me; I'd lost my grip on the spear, so I punched out blindly, hoping it wasn't Cappie. My fist was slowed by water and connected without force, but it still spooked my opponent. The body surged away from me with noisy splashing.

Good—someone was afraid of me. If it was the Neut, I was pleased; but if it was Cappie, the Neut was still out there somewhere, ready to impale me on its knife. Without coming up for air, I kicked out into the night-black water, just trying to put distance between me and the Neut's blade. A few strokes, and my outstretched hand collided with the opposite bank of the creek. Cautiously, I lifted my head.

The Neut, Cappie and I stood dripping in a widely spaced triangle: me against one bank, Cappie against the other, the Neut in the middle, several paces downstream. Cappie no longer held the spear; I assumed she'd lost it when I fell into the creek.

Keeping Its eyes on both of us, the Neut asked, "Is either of you named Fullin?"

The question startled me. I said, "No," immediately, the same reflex that automatically lied to Cappie whenever she asked what I truly thought.

Cappie said nothing.

"This makes things easier," the Neut said in an easy voice. "Two against one isn't so bad when I have the knife."

The Neut waded down the center of the creek, until It stood on a direct line between Cappie and me. That particular stretch of the Cypress isn't wide—from the middle it was only a few steps to either bank, where Cappie and I waited to see which of us the monster would attack. Behind my back, my hands scrabbled for any sort of weapon: a stone I could throw, a stick I could jab at the Neut's eyes. I found nothing but a dirty piece of driftwood, shorter than my forearm and light as a bone with the marrow sucked out. It would break into tinder with the first strike of the Neut's knife...but I swung it up smartly and hoped that in the dark, the Neut couldn't see how flimsy my defense was.

I must have looked intimidating—the Neut lunged for Cappie instead of me.

She still had the spear. Just below the surface of the water, she must have held it pressed between thigh and bank so that her hands would seem empty. I marveled at the ingenuity of the devil that possessed her. Now she snapped up the spear in the face of the Neut's charge and thrust forward. The Neut managed to parry the attack with Its knife, but not entirely. Cloth ripped. In the dark, I couldn't tell if the spear point had torn flesh as well as shirt.

The Neut wasn't fazed by whatever damage It had taken, and now It was inside the arc of the spear. Cappie had no room to swing her weapon around for another attack, and the Neut was raising Its blade. Without hesitation, Cappie let go of the spear and grabbed the Neut's knife arm with both hands.

I plunged forward to help as the two of them wrestled. Cappie was at a disadvantage: pressed up against the bank, she had no space to move for better leverage, while the Neut had a weight advantage. Slowly, the knife descended toward Cappie's face. I wished I had time to find the spear, but it had sunk into the creek as soon as Cappie released it. The only weapons I had were my bare hands, my vulnerable musician's hands. I delayed another second, trying to decide how I could save Cappie without risking injury to my fingers. At last, I grabbed the Neut's shoulders and dragged sideways, the two of us slamming against the bank beside Cappie.

For the second time that night, I had saved Cappie's life. My move had thrown the Neut off balance; with groaning strength, Cappie angled the knife point away from her body and over the ground. A split second later, she let go of the blade. The Neut's momentum stabbed the knife deep into the mud. Immediately, Cappie leaned over and rabbit-punched the Neut in the face, bare knuckles into soft cheek. I shouted to her, "Run!" and grappled to pin the Neut's arms.

At that moment, a boot stepped onto the bank beside my head—a boot surrounded by violet fire. I began to lift my head to look at the newcomer; then a metal canister struck the ground and exploded into smoke.

The smoke stung like a hundred campfires and stank like the marsh's worst rot. My stomach was already fragile from Cappie's gut punch out on the flats; now, I bucked up my supper, vomit splashing warmly on my hands, the Neut, the mud. I tried to keep my grip on the Neut's shoulders but my muscles felt as slack as string. Cappie made one more swing at the Neut's jaw, but her fist had no strength behind it. The Neut slumped, not from the punch but the smoke, and all three of us collapsed helplessly onto the mud, tears streaming, bile dripping down our chins.

With my last remaining energy, I dragged myself to one side, away from the mess I had gagged up. Part of me wanted to let go of the bank, and sink into the creek to clean the stomach-spill from my hands; but I was afraid I'd drown retching, too weak to keep my head above water. My eyes turned back to that fiery boot; and slowly I followed the boot upward, to leg, to body, to helmet.

It was a knight in full armor. Not metal armor, but something glossy—OldTech plastic. The helmet was completely blank, no holes for mouth or nose, only a smoked-glass plate in front of the eyes. The violet fire surrounding him gave off no heat, but hissed softly like a sleeping snake.

Through the smoke, I saw Cappie weakly pull the Neut's machete out of the mud. Before she could use it, the knight kicked the knife lightly from her hand. "'Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,'" he said. "That's from Othello, act one, scene two. Not that I expect anyone to care. Centuries ago, my ancestors could impress the peasantry by quoting Shakespeare, but now it takes tear gas. Oh well—time marches on. Hello."

For more, pick up Commitment Hour, available at book stores throughout North America.