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"Then what do you think our virtual idol should look like?" Fang Zhao asked. He was a newcomer when it came to virtual idols. Even though there were virtual idols before the apocalypse, that was a different story. Now virtual idols were a mature product. It was hard to choose between them.

"Don’t ask me." Zu Wen sprang from his chair, as if he'd sat on a nail. "You don’t wanna ask me. I’m just a technician who executes. The look of the virtual idol is decided by the producer. I’m just responsible for building the image the producer decides on. In simple terms, I just do what you tell me to do. You, the producer, decide what we make."

Zu Wen had no intention of becoming the scapegoat. That had always been the prevailing mood on Silver Wing’s virtual idol projects. If any of his ideas contributed to the failure of the project, he was dead meat.

Seeing that everyone was avoiding volunteering ideas like the plague, Fang Zhao realized that he would have to design the look of the virtual idol. No one else was going to touch that one.

"If that’s all, I’m going to head back." Zu Wen just wanted to report for duty and scope out the new producer.

"No problem. Why don’t you head back?"

Released by his boss, Zu Wen bolted in huge strides, leaving Fang Zhao alone in his massive office where he became engrossed in the book on his desk.

What should the virtual idol look like?

A call came through on his bracelet.

It was about his black street apartment. He had hired contractors to renovate his studio.

Silver Wing had wired him a payment. Per his contract, Fang Zhao got a 100,000-dollar cut because his entry for the new talent contest recorded 1.9 million downloads. It was a token of thanks for finishing fifth.

Fang Zhao could have used the money to rent a better place or even buy a smaller studio in the suburbs. The label asked him if he wanted company housing, which full-time employees were entitled to.

Fang Zhao had planned to buy a studio in the suburbs, but he dropped the idea after taking on the virtual idol project. He would be spending more time in his office for an extended period. Composers could set their own schedules, but as producer for the virtual idol project, he had to look up a lot of information that he could only access for free at the office. He would have to pay a significant extra amount to access the company’s intranet from a remote location.

He could do his research at his office—he could even sleep there. In that case, finding a new apartment wasn’t a pressing matter anymore. He had lived in worse places during the apocalypse; he was in no hurry to upgrade his digs. That better wait until the project was over. So Fang Zhao decided to renovate his current apartment instead.

After giving Du Ang a heads up, Fang Zhao left Silver Wing and returned to his black street apartment.

After deciding not to buy a new place, Fang Zhao upgraded his headset, his glasses, and his stereo system. The contractors were about to install sound-proof windows and a ventilation system.

The installations were completed in less than an hour.

He checked the time. It was already 5 in the afternoon. Fang Zhao headed downstairs and his dog with curly hair followed.

He bought some food at the store. Now that he had some cash, he didn’t have to mistreat himself anymore. He ordered food of better quality.

Yue Qing handed Fang Zhao the decompressed food. This meal was more refined and more tender and naturally fragrant than the decompressed dim sum he'd had before.

"How much?" Fang Zhao asked.

"It’s on the house. Congrats on doing well in the new talent contest." Yue Qing didn’t follow the music industry. He'd only found out because he overheard a few youngsters chatting in his shop yesterday.

Fang Zhao didn’t put up any pretenses. "Thanks!"

"That’s right, Boss Yue, what kind of pop idols do you like? Virtual or real?" Fang Zhao asked.

"Pop idols?" Yue Qing froze and then shook his head. "I don’t follow pop idols. The current pop stars don’t really strike my fancy. When I listen to a pop song, I don’t bother figuring out who the performer and composer are. The only reason I knew about the new talent contest is because I overheard someone else talking about it. I wasn’t following the competition. But…"

Yue Qing turned his head to scan his store carefully. After making sure his wife was still at work, he said, "But I remember one celebrity who had quite the body." Yue Qing traced her curves in a dreamy state. "What was her name again? I can’t remember her name."

"Was she a virtual idol or a real one?" Fang Zhao asked.

"I’m not sure. Does it make a difference? These idols are all beyond our grasp," Yue Qing said.

"Boss Yue, is there someone you admire?" Fang Zhao asked.

"Someone I admire… Yeah, my former commander. Before he retired from the army…" Yue Qing got carried away reminiscing about his army days, but he quickly came to his senses. "What are you asking all these questions for?"

"I took on a virtual idol project," Fang Zhao responded. It was no secret, so there was no need for him to lie.

"Then I won’t be of any help. Those celebrities and idols really don’t do much for me. Even if I remember what they look like, I can’t remember the names of their songs, let alone know how to critique them. I just save songs when I hear something I like. But very few songs strike my fancy these days—they’re either too mellow or they rock my eardrums. Not my cup of tea." Yue Qing was no music aficionado. He didn’t listen to much music.

Someone called for Fang Zhao.

"Hey, Fang Zhao, over here."

Fang Zhao followed the voice and saw the owner of the drug store waving at him.

"Ai Wan wanted to see you," Yue Qing said.

Ai Wan was the owner of the drug store.

Fang Zhao stuffed down what was left of his food, returned his plate, and darted from the shop to the drug store.

"What’s up?" Fang Zhao asked.

Ai Wan eyed Fang Zhao’s dog, which was following closely. "It’s about the dog with the curly fur."

After inviting Fang Zhao inside, Ai Wan handed over a batch of test results from the past few days. After he shaved the dog, he was curious what was so special about it that it could jam his clippers. But the tests revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

"I found traces of five rare metals. They didn’t show up before because their levels weren’t excessive. But it’s no big deal, probably from the dog’s years of scavenging. There’s a lot of toxic waste in garbage dumps. Don’t worry about it," Ai Wan said.

Fang Zhao scanned the test reports and asked, "This is what you wanted to tell me?"

"Of course not." Ai Wan brought out another batch of test results. "When I analyzed the dog fur, I cross-checked its DNA sequencing against a database. Weren’t you asking what breed it was? Turns out it might be descended from a Curly-Coated Retriever or a water spaniel from before the near-apocalypse. But your dog’s fur is extra curly and many species mutated during the end of days, so the results aren’t completely reliable. That’s the best I could do—the database is limited because too many animals went extinct during the apocalypse. But I also checked a database of New Era dogs."

Ai Wan brought out another chart. "You probably don’t know that a distinguishing marker gene was found in the service dogs that survived the apocalypse. The wild dogs that survived have a different marker gene. That’s how dog researchers can tell whether a dog is descended from a service dog or a wild dog."

Ai Wan pointed at the chart and pointed at the dog with curly hair sitting next to Fang Zhao. "I found both marker genes on this one."

"And your conclusion is?" Fang Zhao asked.

"One of its ancestors is definitely the offspring of a service dog and a wild dog, but perhaps, by its generation, its wild-dog genes are stronger. It’s a small dog, after all. Service dogs are usually quite large. Of course, I can’t rule out the possibility that it’s the descendant of one of those rare, smaller service dogs, but I’m inclined to believe in my hypothesis."

Wild dogs from the New Era were known for their small build and top-notch survival skills. The larger wild dogs have long gone extinct.

"Think back to what it looked like when you first adopted it and consider the heavy metal levels in its system. It would have died if it were any other species. Its wild dog genes kept it alive."

As Ai Wan spoke, he reached out to fondle the dog, but it shied away.

"Hey, you were such a steady boy when I was shaving you," Ai Wan complained.

"Many thanks," Fang Zhao said. He didn’t request the tests, so he was grateful that Ai Wan took the time to conduct them and had shared the results.

Ai Wan waved off his thanks. "My pleasure. I was curious. I just hope you don’t mind."

Fang Zhao paused, then asked, "Boss Ai, are you a fan of any pop idols or celebrities?"

"Idols or celebrities? Yeah, what’s her name. She played a nurse in a movie last year. She was really cute, haha."

"Do you remember her name?" Fang Zhao asked.

"I can’t remember off the top of my head."

"Is she a virtual or real idol?"

"A virtual one. How great it would be if she were a real one; I might run into her one day. She was a better actor than the real actors. She really delivered as the nurse. She reminded me or an actual ER nurse. The other actors couldn’t pull their parts off. They wouldn’t be able to fool someone with a medical background."

After leaving the drug store, Fang Zhao returned to his second-floor apartment and watched a few movies and concerts that featured some of the more popular virtual idols in recent times on his new projector. He wanted to see what a hit virtual idol looked like.

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