Fang Zhao was beginning to understand why an entire team made a virtual idol. He and Zu Wen were working themselves to death but were still making little progress.
Everyone avoided the 50th floor like the plague. No one wanted to get sucked in.
Their budget was limited, so new hires were unrealistic. Fang Zhao could only loan staffers from other departments.
After deciding on the initial look of the virtual idol, Fang Zhao had to source a starter voice and land a technician who could engineer the voice.
Technicians on loan would simply charge by the hour. They were not hard to find. It could wait until after he decided on a starter voice.
Zu Wen had suggested Fang Zhao land one of the singers signed to the label. The company also had dubbing talent, but it wasn’t a large pool and they were already busy with existing assignments. Even if they could be transferred, they wouldn’t be cheap. Many of the staffers had dubbed for big stars and might not bother with a virtual idol project. It might be easier to hire an unassigned singer. A second-tier singer would be cheaper. Even though they all worked for the same company, the pricing was fixed.
Fang Zhao first tried the newcomers. Du Ang was his boss, so he was Fang Zhao's first stop.
Du Ang’s eyelids had been twitching non-stop since he got up. Somehow, he had a hunch that something bad was going to happen, so he reviewed his pending and completed workload to make sure he didn’t miss anything—items he had taken care of, projects that were ongoing, and upcoming tasks.
Fresh assignments for his newcomer singers had been issued. The project proposals submitted by agents he had just been put in charge of looked OK.
The new composers were doing OK. No problem there.
Arrangements for his newcomers’ upcoming releases—he had delegated to that demon Ya Erlin. That wasn’t part of his portfolio.
He had completed the minutes for yesterday’s meeting.
There seemed to be one department that he had skipped…
A reminder for an internal message. It was his assistant.
"Boss Du, Fang Zhao is here to see you."
Du Ang felt his eyelids twitching even more violently.
It was the first time Du Ang felt more nervous meeting an underling than a superior.
He drank a glass of water to calm himself down.
After taking a deep breath and soothing himself, Du Ang cleared his voice and said with the authoritative tone of a boss, "Send him in."
As soon as Fang Zhao entered Du Ang’s office, he could sense that something was wrong. Even though he looked serious and calm, Fang Zhao’s well-honed instincts told him that Du Ang was tightly wound, as if Fang Zhao were a time bomb.
Fang Zhao pretended he hadn't noticed and cut to the chase. "Boss Du, do you want an update on the virtual idol project?"
"I’ve been busy. Didn’t I tell you to use your own discretion on the virtual idol project?" Du Ang made the point of gesturing at his full screen.
Fang Zhao nodded, pretending that he hadn’t seen the "completed" label at the bottom of the screen.
"I’ve decided on the look of the virtual idol. Zu Wen is refining the prototype. We’re quite short-staffed. I need to pick a starter voice. I also need actors, judging from the project proposals from previous years. I can poach a few technicians after other key personnel are in place, but the starter voice can’t wait. Can you check if any of the newcomer singers are available?"
When he heard Fang Zhao say he had decided on the look of the virtual idol, Du Ang was about to say, "Let me see." But when he heard Fang Zhao’s request, he swallowed the comment. He cared more about his newcomers than the look of a virtual idol that was going nowhere. He had already lost Fang Zhao. He couldn’t afford to lose more people to the death pit.
"They’re all busy. I’m not bullshitting you. Bei Zhi and company were sent to training camp the day before yesterday. I can’t say for sure when they’ll be back."
There was some truth to Du Ang’s response. It was true that the newcomer singers were dispatched for specialized training. Even though they performed OK in the new talent contest, their vocal skills could use improvement. To better prepare them for their careers, Du’s agents had tailored training sessions to their weaknesses. Du Ang had signed off and the singers were off-site. They couldn’t be tracked down.
But Du Ang had lied about the timing of their return. How could he not know, considering he had signed off on the training sessions?
Fang Zhao stared at Du Ang when he responded. He noticed the twitching in his eyelids pick up a notch.
Du Ang scrambled to switch topics. "None of the newcomers are available. You can try the rehearsal studios on the 51st floor. Our singers like to train there when they’re free. It’s only one floor above your office, a stone’s throw away."
The virtual idol department used to also take up the few floors above and beneath the 50th, but as the department’s fortunes declined, every floor except the 50th was reallocated.
For example, the 51st floor was turned into a public rehearsal area.
After leaving Du Ang’s office, Fang Zhao headed straight to the 51st floor. All full-time employees were allowed without exception, but not interns or contractors. They had to get special approval.
Fang Zhao was now a permanent employee and the producer for the virtual idol project, so naturally, he had clearance.
After scanning his ID, Fang Zhao crossed the threshold. A buffer zone was located just inside the entrance, where employees could relax and store their personal items.
When Fang Zhao showed up, there were seven or eight people engaged in conversation. When they saw Fang Zhao, they eyed him curiously. The regulars on the floor all knew that Fang Zhao was a stranger.
Looks-wise, Fang Zhao was OK, but pretty and handsome faces were the norm in a company stacked with idols, so even his above-average face didn’t stand out.
But the virtual idol project was a hot topic on internal message boards as of late, so people remembered what Fang Zhao looked like.
Someone who hadn’t recognized Fang Zhao was getting ready to say hello before a neighboring friend whispered in his ear and shut him up. Some of the folks pretended they hadn't seen Fang Zhao, others nodded and smiled, their smiles apologetic and awkward. Fang Zhao didn’t mind and smiled politely in return before stepping into the official rehearsal zone.
He walked through a door. When he opened the second, a cacophony of sounds gushed toward him, which sent him briefly into a dizzy spell.
But Fang Zhao had endured worse noises during the apocalypse, so all he did was frown slightly before finding a seat on the side of the rehearsal zone.
The singers who rehearsed here weren’t big shots. Singers who were either talented or connected would train on other floors that had individual booths. This was a public area.
Everyone wore headsets and minded their own business.
Fang Zhao scanned the crowd. There were about 80 people or so. Not all of them were singers. Some were regular employees who wanted to vent. The building was equipped with karaoke rooms, but they were off-limits to the rank-and-file, so singing in the pubic rehearsal studio was a good alternative. And it was free.
Some of the singers recognized Fang Zhao. They pointed him out to friends in their vicinity and started gossiping, giving Fang Zhao the occasional glance. They probably figured out why Fang Zhao was there.
For many, serving as producer of the virtual idol department was a toothless position that promised neither riches or power, so even if they recognized Fang Zhao, they didn’t bother to approach him.
Fang Zhao paid no heed to what people were saying or the way they looked at him. He had been focusing on the voices since he entered the room. In scouting a starter voice, all that mattered was the voice—looks, age and experience were irrelevant.
Even though he could tinker with the starter voice, Fang Zhao was hoping to find one that met his requirements right off the bat.
His eyes wandered and his ears started filtering the different voices in the room. Suddenly, he focused his gaze on a spot in the room.
The room was too crowded and cluttered furnishings blocked his line of sight, so Fang Zhao couldn’t immediately identify the source of the voice. He got up and headed toward the voice.
The people who were gossiping about Fang Zhao were intrigued and moved toward him.
Fang Zhao followed the voice to a corner where he found a young man who looked like a fresh graduate. He was shorter than the people around him. That’s why Fang Zhao couldn’t see him.
His looks were so-so, the type that wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. If you had to choose an identifying feature, his neck was a bit short. Good thing he wasn’t fat. If he were fat, you wouldn’t have been able to see his neck.
The other singers stayed away from the young man. The singer closest to him was at least 10 meters away, headsets on and ears covered.
Fang Zhao noticed the young man was wearing a contractor tag on his chest. People like him usually served as background vocalists or sang in choruses in a pinch. They weren’t official Silver Wing employees. They enjoyed no benefits and were considered even lowlier than interns.
Folks like him were also known as professional extras. They were marginalized and lacked job security, not knowing what two-bit gig lay ahead.