Fang Zhao was still frowning, so Chu Guang turned on his bracelet screen and switched to draw mode.
"To put it in simple terms…"
Chu Guang drew two circles on his screen and connected them with a straight line. He pointed to the circle on the left. "Let’s say this is the tough guy type." Then he gestured to the circle on the right. "This is the pansy type."
Fang Zhao nodded.
Chu Guang drew a third circle in the middle of the line. "This is the hybrid. During the Reg Era, most virtual idols were centrists or center-left. Even if right-leaning idols existed, they were a minority. But after the Reg Era, virtual idols veered to the right. That’s why my uncle made that comment. Even though he was exaggerating and things aren’t that bad, the overall data supports this trend."
Fang Zhao understood. He had read about the transformation of virtual idols in his research as well. To compete with real idols, virtual idols had to reinvent themselves—and their evolution did indeed lean toward the right of the spectrum as Chu Guang had said.
Chu Guang turned off his bracelet screen. "This is a visual era. Standards of beauty shift from generation to generation. The top idols during the Reg Era may not be successful if they were transplanted to today. You can see traces of the classic idols from the Reg Era in today’s virtual idols, but they have been tailored to current aesthetic standards so they can better fit prevailing visual preferences. Just like our styles as composers will evolve over our lifetimes."
"A businessman once said, ‘The market is always right. If you can’t fit in, then the problem lies with you. You must change with the times and not fight the market.’"
Fang Zhao still looked puzzled, so Chu Guang offered up more consolation. "But you don’t have to take these things too seriously. You’re a composer, not a professional virtual idol producer. Plus, Silver Wing doesn’t really care about the virtual idol project. Just base your design on the company’s previous virtual idols and wrap up the project soon. Composing is your priority. We’ll be waiting for you on the charts."
There were many more charts beyond the New Pioneers Chart. The New Pioneers Chart was only a starter chart. They had many other charts to climb.
After leaving campus, Chu Guang drove away in his flying car. Fang Zhao boarded his train too. He had to switch trains once to get to his black street.
When Fang Zhao got home, it was already 4 p.m. The black street was still dark.
Curly Hair sensed Fang Zhao’s arrival and was waiting by the door. When Fang Zhao entered, it whimpered and wagged its tail vigorously.
Fang Zhao scanned his apartment. Nothing was broken. He fondled the dog on the head and poured food onto its plate.
He had just set down his briefcase and barely finished a glass of water when his bracelet indicated a call.
Fang Zhao raised his eyebrows when he saw the caller ID.
When he answered, Fang Sheng’s face appeared.
After being crowded out by Fang Zhao on the New Pioneers Chart, Fang Sheng’s stock at Neon Culture had no doubt suffered, even though it hadn’t completely tanked.
It was their first contact in some time. Fang Sheng looked less obnoxious. His horrible pallor, puffy eyes. and the dark green circles surrounding them suggested he was in bad shape. It had been a while since he'd last slept well.
"You cunning bastard." Fang Sheng gritted his teeth.
"Why, thank you." Fang Zhao was oblivious to the anger in his tone. Did thieves have the right to be angry?
"You must be delighted to have pulled a fast one on me, eh?" Fang Sheng was convinced that Fang Zhao had held back a song from him as a precaution. Otherwise, where did the "hehe" song come from? He never knew about it when they were close.
You couldn’t blame Fang Sheng for his suspicions. Yet a diary entry written during heartbreak was very private. Unless Fang Zhao completed the piece, he would have never shown it to anyone, even Fang Sheng, whom he considered a close friend back then.
Fang Zhao ignored the question. He put down his glass and stared at Fang Sheng. "You think this is over?"
Fang Sheng was going to make fun of Fang Zhao for being stuck with the virtual idol project at Silver Wing. Instead, he was caught off guard by Fang Zhao’s response. "What do you mean?"
"Just wait and see."
Wait for what?
What did Fang Zhao have up his sleeve?
Could Fang Zhao have held back other songs?
"What do you mean, Fang Zhao? Be straight with me."
Fang Zhao hung up, shunning the panicked Fang Sheng.
He walked to the corner where he composed and pulled open the drawer where the original owner of his body kept his diary. He added the medal he'd received today at graduation from Yanzhou Music Association for his fifth-place finish in the new talent contest.
Even though Fang Zhao arranged the song, his body’s original owner was the composer. He deserved the credit.
"I’ll take care of the rest."
Now that he had graduated, Fang Zhao didn’t need to go to campus anymore. It was also summer break, and the next virtual idol course didn’t start until September. It was only early July. That was more than a month away.
Fang Zhao had to draft a project proposal in the next month; otherwise, he would be too busy to sit in on the virtual idol class come the new semester.
Recruiting a team could wait. First, Fang Zhao had to decide on the look of his virtual idol.
Fang Zhao understood everything Chu Guang had said, but he was an old relic parachuted into the present time, after all. He was still absorbing.
Why not retain the core of past virtual idols and repackage it?
Virtual idols had an edge in that they didn’t have to be human. There was a huge market for the fairies and demons that ruled the Reg Era and furry, cute pet animals. Some of the classics lasted several generations. Different styles catered to different demographics.
How do you cater to the market?
But the market was a mystery. No one had an absolute answer.
Fang Zhao was still struggling the next day.
When he was having breakfast in the morning, Fang Zhao noticed the paper notebook sticking out of his briefcase. He used it to take notes when he was doing research in his office. Eventually, there had been too much information to jot down, so he'd started scanning pages with his bracelet instead.
But among the few lines in the notebook was a quote that stuck with him. Something the father of virtual idols, Reg Smith, had said: "I worship only what I create."
Composing was a form of creativity.
Even an artist trapped in a cage was free at heart.
"I worship only what I create."
Fang Zhao repeated the quote again in a low voice and laughed. He opened the notebook and started drawing with a pen.
No one knew that the core of this body had endured the end of days. Fang Zhao couldn’t shed his experiences from his soul.
Instead of second-guessing all the time, why not give yourself free rein?
Time passed and light started seeping through the windows. The noon sun was about to arrive.
Dressed in a wife-beater and baggy boxers, Yue Qing dragged a chair to his storefront for his daily tan. He was surprised that Fang Zhao hadn’t showed up yet.
"Did the kid head out?" Ai Wan stopped by to ask.
"I dunno. Didn’t see him this morning." Yue Qing scanned Fang Zhao’s window, which was open.
"He hasn’t left. The kid’s still in," Yue Qing confirmed.
"That’s odd. Very unusual." Ai Wan shook his head. Out of occupational habit, he had studied Fang Zhao for days. There was something off about him. He was a bit guarded. Maybe all artists were like that.
Inside the apartment, Curly Hair had just finished his breakfast and was resting quietly. Its droopy ears occasionally shifted in sync with the hustle and bustle outside.
The noon sunlight and the noise didn’t affect Fang Zhao’s concentration at all.