Judging from the warmup exercises he was performing, the young man was preparing for a chorus.
When he noticed Fang Zhao approaching, the young man began to interrupt his practice. When he stopped and realized Fang Zhao was seeking him out, he panicked.
"So-so-so-sorry. Am I bo-bo-bo-bothering you?" the young man stuttered.
"No, not at all. Carry on. I’m just listening." Fang Zhao sat in a chair in the corner. The corner was empty. The other singers were avoiding the area and the chairs were all unoccupied.
The young man scratched his head hesitantly. He glanced at Fang Zhao and the onlookers. He opened his mouth but couldn’t continue. It just felt like he was surrounded by a crowd that was focused on him. What if he was so afraid and nervous that his voice scared people away? Would they kick him out?
After pondering the matter, the young man stopped altogether and walked to the corner. He decided to take a break and resume after folks shifted their attention elsewhere.
"What’s your name?" Fang Zhao asked. "Preparing for a chorus?"
"A Silver Wing choir is recruiting. I’m here to try my luck." The young man clutched a glass of water nervously. "My name is Pang Pusong. Doesn’t it sound like the name of a song, haha?"
He had wanted to crack a joke to ease his nerves, but Pang Pusong became even more nervous after laughing. He wondered if Fang Zhao was about to kick him out.
"My name is Fang Zhao," Pang Pusong heard the other man say. "I’m the producer for a virtual idol project here at Silver Wing."
A producer? A big shot.
Pang Pusong was immediately impressed. The man looked like he was about Pang Pusong's age and he was already a producer—no wonder he projected such a powerful aura.
"I’m looking for a starter voice and I heard your warmup exercises. I think you might be a good match, but I want to listen some more. Can you repeat the section you just sang? Don’t hold back. Don’t sing it like a chorus. Sing it like you would normally sing it," Fang Zhao said.
Pang Pusong felt like he'd been struck by a huge stone. He was a little dizzy. He wondered if he'd misheard Fang Zhao. "S-s-si-sing it again?"
"Yes. The section you were practicing. Don’t hold back. Don't worry about anything else," Fang Zhao explained patiently.
"O-O-O-OK." Pang Pusong put down his glass and got up. He didn’t set the glass down properly and it nearly toppled and rolled over, but he didn’t look back. He was as serious as a soldier preparing for battle.
The surrounding gazes still gave Pu pause. He cleared his throat but didn’t start singing.
"Go ahead. What are you looking at them for?" Fang Zhao asked.
"OK." Pang Pusong collected his thoughts. He was at Silver Wing to audition for a choir spot. The audition was scheduled for just after 4 p.m. His uncle had had a friend secure him a pass for the public rehearsal area. This was where he usually practiced before an audition. He never would have thought he’d have such good luck. Providing vocals for a virtual idol was naturally a better gig than singing in a choir. It was the difference between a leading and supporting role.
Trying his best to ignore the attention and let go of his worries, Pang Pusong started repeating the section he was practicing.
He had trouble relaxing at first, but after a few verses, he didn’t hold back any more.
A few of the singers donning headsets nearby were singing to the melodies playing in their headsets, but they started to have trouble continuing. They frowned, turned off their recordings, and started bitching to Pang Pusong. "If you wanna sing, go outside. You’re not welcome here."
"That’s right. You’re not welcome here."
"Why not ask Fang Zhao take you downstairs and sing there?"
"If you have the guts, go downstairs with Fang Zhao. You can sing freely there." The onlookers pitched in.
This time, Pang Pusong freaked out. He stared at Fang Zhao blankly.
Fang Zhao wasn’t affected by the heckling, flashing a smile instead. He seemed to be in a good mood.
"This is a public rehearsal area, meaning everyone can sing freely here. You’re not able to concentrate and you blame others. If you’ve got the guts, why don’t you practice in an individual booth?" Fang Zhao glared at the haters. He didn’t press on. There was no point in wasting words on people he despised. Bullies were a dime a dozen.
He pointed at Pang Pusong. "You come with me."
Pang Pusong looked like a lost child. He shrank his already short neck and followed Fang Zhao out of the public rehearsal area.
"Wow, he really thinks he’s a big shot." Someone chuckled behind Fang Zhao’s back.
"Fang Zhao’s probably here looking for a starter voice."
"Definitely. I wouldn’t sign up even if he begged."
"All he can do is impress clueless outsiders. Look at how happy that fool was when he was leaving."
After leaving the public rehearsal area, Fang Zhao led Pang Pusong to his office on the 50th floor. He asked him if he was otherwise engaged. If not, he wanted Pang Pusong to start recording as soon as possible.
"No, I don’t have anything else going on." Pang Pusong couldn’t help but shift to the edge of his chair. He waited anxiously for what followed.
"This is your contract. Please take a look." Fang Zhao opened a file on the microcomputer on his desk. It was a template. He could use it for Pang Pusong, with a few modifications.
Pang Pusong studied the contract carefully and found everything in order. He nodded.
Even though it was still contract work and he wasn’t about to become a full-time employee at Silver Wing, Pang Pusong was so excited he wanted to dance. After he signed the contract, he felt like he was on cloud nine.
He wasn’t good looking enough to be on stage – he could only work behind-the scenes. But there were different kinds of backstage work. On previous gigs, he had always shared the workload with others. This was the first time he landed a solo contract, meaning he was the leading man.
"I’ll submit your personal information. I’ll let you know when your pass is ready." Fang Zhao said.
"Gr-gr-gr-great. Thank you. Thank you." Pang Pusong wanted to bow. He was so excited when he left that he ran into the door.
Fang Zhao shook his head. "Actually, never mind. I’ll head out with you. I need to see someone downstairs."
Fang Zhao wanted to see Du Ang, but first, he escorted Pang Pusong to the lobby. Pang Pusong was still in a daze. Fang Zhao was worried about his state of mind. What if something went wrong? Where was he going to find another singer on such short notice?
As they stepped out of Silver Wing Tower, a fleet of flying cars hovered above.
Unlike rank-and-file employees like Fang Zhao, the big stars at the label were typically allocated higher floors, which had separate parking spots, so it was rare for Fang Zhao to see them in person, because they headed straight to their respective floors in their flying cars.
The flying cars were headed for floors beyond the 100th. It was probably a few big shots.
"If I could reach their heights, I would die with no regrets." Pang Pusong looked up with admiration, extending his short neck.
Fang Zhao chuckled. "Who knows what the future will bring."
Fang Zhao headed back inside as Pang Pusong queued for the train. He could hear his new recruit calling his mother with the good news.
"Hello? Mom? Yes, yes, I went to practice at Silver Wing. Yes, I used the pass uncle got me. No, I didn’t cause any trouble. Really. I lowered my voice. I didn’t bother anyone. But… Wait, calm down, let me finish. Don't think it’s bad news just because I shifted gears. I landed a project today. Yes, I signed a contract. It’s an internal project, not a chorus part, but a solo gig. One of Silver Wing’s virtual idol producers wants to use my voice."
An extra had become the leading man. Even though it was a small production, it was still a leading role. For a veteran extra, it was a milestone.
After heading inside, Fang Zhao asked Du Ang to issue Pang Pusong a pass, then returned to the 50th floor to get an update from Zu Wen.
When Pang Pusong visited, Zu Wen was holed up in his office. When Fang Zhao told him he had signed a singer, he reflexively responded, "What an idiot!"
When Fang Zhao glared back, Zu Wen rephrased. "No, I mean, what a good man." The contract didn’t state the length of the project. If it ended up taking an extended period, weren’t they holding the singer hostage? Zu Wen thought Pang Pusong was too naive, too easily swayed.
But Zu Wen was also curious. "How come you picked him out of all the people in the public rehearsal area?"
Fang Zhao pondered the question. He didn’t respond with a direct answer, asking instead, "Do you know what ‘radiance’ is?’"
Zu Wen shook his head. He had never heard the term despite working on previous virtual idol projects.
"Radiance is invisible. It can exist in silence and create tension, but it can also exist in a voice, teasing out emotions like fear, sadness, happiness, or excitement. For a singer, it’s not just a matter of delivering the melody. You also have to adjust various aspects of your voice to enhance the listening experience and move hearts. That’s the power of radiance," Fang Zhao explained.
"Just like the same song can be handled differently by two singers. One could sing with feeling and the other version could be instantly forgettable," Zu Wen said.
"That’s right. It’s a specialized skill. You can unleash hidden radiance by manipulating your voice, tugging senses, heartstrings, and souls in the process. But there are some singers who are naturally better at unleashing their radiance than others."
"You mean the kid you just signed?"
"Right. The only thing is that radiance is hard to harness. That’s why he had to restrain his radiance when he was practicing to stay in line, to blend in with the crowd. He thinks his voice is a monster. The monster sets him apart. It gets to other people in a chorus. He’s heckled when he sings. His voice throws up roadblocks everywhere. That’s why he keeps suppressing it. Little does he know, it’s a force that is a game changer. It’s not a monster. It’s talent."
Zu Wen scratched the goosebumps that had started forming on his arms. He still felt that radiance was a monster.
But then he thought, "one is a vocal freak, the other is a virtual tree—what a great combination."
One freak dubbing for another. A trace of anticipation set in.