A brass band was playing on top of a float. Royce couldn’t see either the band or the float. The crowd was pressed in tightly, with many wearing tall, feathered headdresses that swayed as they danced. As loud as the band must have been playing, the noise from the party almost drowned the music out.
This was Night Side in Ephis, Carnival, the Festival of Taverns, the wildest annual party in the Spiral Arm.
Royce carefully adjusted the cheap plastic cat mask that kept slipping down his nose. He slapped at a hand that had repeatedly tried to insert itself into his jacket pocket, and sighed. Every year he promised himself that this time would be the last. Somehow, he always found himself back once more. This year was the tenth Carnival that he had attended, the third since the rogue AI had rebuilt his entire body from the cells up, with so many unexpected results.
“Kabab?” The street vendor yelled over the tumult, and waved a stick of something that might once have been animal. Royce declined with a curt hand gesture. He still ate, sometimes, but his body mostly pulled its nourishment from the basal energy of the universe itself. Food and drink, once indispensable pleasures, were now merely states of mind. One more in a long list of consequences.
Growing tired of the constant jostling, he steered himself to the edge of the crowd, and then turned abruptly down one of the streets leading away from the Strip, winding eventually down to the Piazza with its vast fountain.
This part of Night Side was a maze of narrow alleys and cobbled streets. There was little light, of course. The tight, reflected beams from the orbital mirrors were reserved for the party. The buildings on either side of him rose two stories. The upper floors had metal railings on deeply inset balconies. The shutters on the windows were all closed, as usual. If Royce ignored the bubbled glass of the domes overhead, he could have been walking through an ancient city back on Earth, parsecs away, millennia past.
There was no other traffic, everybody either partying in the Strip, or up to no damn good, hunkered down behind the closed shutters. A few short years ago, Royce would have been terrified to walk here alone. Now, though, there was little short of a black hole that could have harmed him, and even that would likely have incurred a fine case of indigestion, and a matching pair of shiners.
From a side alley, a thud broke the silence. Royce narrowed his eyes, enlarging, brightening, enhancing.
A mob clustered around what looked like a pile of rags on the cobbled ground. Several of the people wore dark glasses, the green glow of light amplification highlighting their noses and temples. As he watched, one of them kicked savagely at the bundle, which moved slightly.
Royce whistled. “Hey,” he said.
“A drunk,” he heard a voice mutter.
“Get out of here,” a second voice said, louder this time.
One of the gang moved, withdrew something metallic from their clothes.
“No witnesses,” the first voice said.
The gun fired, the infinitesimal instant of ignition an eternity to Royce. He side-stepped the bullet. Then, considering the potential for collateral damage, he reached out and plucked it out of the air.
“Is this yours?” he asked, icily, holding out the tiny lump of lead.
Then he dropped the act. “There’s a huge party just over there. That could have killed someone,” he said, harshly.
There was a hiss of inhaled breath, an alarmed slur, “Upsie”, the sudden realization that the supposed drunk before them was actually an improbably rare, impossibly lethal, Upgraded Person.
Royce dropped the bullet, and took a single step forward.
Immediately, the gang retreated into the dimly-lit alleys of the Night Side, the receding sound of their shoes beating a staccato echo on the hard, uneven pavement. He did not chase after them.
“You saved my–” the victim said, levering himself up, slowly, achingly, into a seated position on the ground.
Royce had already gone.
Carnival was always like this, would always be like this. Ten years would become a hundred, then a thousand. The tedious, endless, enervating celebrations would reverberate on a dozen planets, an infinite echo of ceaseless parties still to come, and no prospect of release until the final heat death of the universe.
He needed to leave Ephis.