What disappointed many businessmen who invested in real idols and celebrities was the fact that the virtual idols didn’t disappear completely over the years, even if their influence had waned since their peak years. Even though virtual idols lasted for a briefer period than real celebrities, they still carried significant weight in the entertainment industry.
An up-tempo melody started playing in the train, grabbing Fang Zhao’s attention once more. It was a classic piece by a superstar from many, many years ago. It was a solo instrumental performance without lyrics.
Fang Zhao closed his eyes and let the melody sink in.
The piece was often used as an upper by public transportation drivers. It wasn’t just the drivers; the passengers were also stimulated. Some joked that the melody had become an office anthem—a few listens and you would be motivated to work.
The music transmitted a fiery passion and buzz. Passengers sitting on their seats began shaking their crossed legs to the beat. The sleepy heads of the afternoon ride saw their spirits soar as their leg shakes increased in frequency.
Listening to the same song, the fellow commuters felt a sense of camaraderie.
How long had it been since he felt that way?
Fang Zhao felt the blood in his veins start to boil. He was so excited he wanted to roar.
This world -- he approved.
The train was on a circular route that looped around the city. Even though it only looped a small part of the city—and a suburban part at that, not downtown—Fang Zhao got a good sense of the geography. His new memory had almost fully integrated.
When he returned to the station where he boarded and disembarked, he was in a different mood. He was keen on blending into this world as quickly as possible—and then enjoying it.
Train fares were determined by the length of the journey. Fang Zhao started incurring a fare the moment he swiped his bracelet. Still, public transportation was relatively cheap. The trip cost Fang Zhao 50 dollars, slightly cheaper than other forms of transportation. That was a bit of a luxury considering Fang Zhao’s limited cash on hand, but he thought it was worth it.
Back at the black street, Fang Zhao picked up his dog from the drug store first. The filthy dog with knotted fur whose original color eluded him looked skinny after being shaved. His bones protruded in sharp relief beneath his skin.
The dog looked unsettled after its shave. Likewise, the owner of the drug store was also pale.
"Your dog almost jammed my clippers," the owner complained to Fang Zhao. "But since I said 50 dollars, I won’t renege."
Dog fur could be that stiff? Fang Zhao was skeptical. Because the dog’s fur was badly tied up in knots and stains, he couldn’t get a feel of its texture. Now that the owner of the drug store was complaining, he wondered if dog fur had stiffened since the apocalypse.
But the owner might not be telling the truth. He might have exaggerated a bit.
"Anyway, take your dog. I need to catch up on sleep." The owner waved his hand. On any black street, business was the best at night, so he had to sleep during the day.
Fang Zhao left in silence, carrying the shaven dog in his arms.
When the drug store owner cleaned his clippers after Fang Zhao left, he realized they didn’t work anymore. He swore he wasn’t just embellishing.
"They really broke down after shaving a dog?" The bemused owner checked the clippers again and confirmed they indeed had gone bust.
"Good thing they were cheap. I’m not shaving dog fur again," the drug store owner mumbled.
On his way home, Fang Zhao passed Yue Qing’s store and picked up some more food.
He returned to his second-floor rental. Residents of his building living on the 80th floor or higher were lucky enough to enjoy a bit sunshine, but people living in lower floors could forget about it, not to mention that Fang Zhao lived on the second floor, which was even darker. His room was even darker than when he woke up before he turned on the lights.
After tidying up the apartment, Fang Zhao scanned the display on his bracelet, which indicated 17 blocked calls.
Out of the 17 calls, three were from the Silver Media agent in charge of interns, four were from Wan Yue, and 10 were from Zeng Huang.
Wan Yue and Zeng Huang were the other two childhood friends of his body’s original owner. But unlike Fang Sheng, even though the couple didn’t spend as much time with the original owner as Fang Sheng, they were sincere. They had only drifted apart from him during their university days at the instigation of Fang Sheng. They had even less contact after he started his internship at Silver Wing Media.
No more than two minutes after he disabled his call blocking, Zeng Huang called again.
Fang Zhao tapped the connect button on his bracelet and out popped the hologram of a nervous Zeng Huang.
"You doing OK, Big Zhao?" Zeng Huang breathed a huge sigh of relief after seeing Fang Zhao. He wanted to comment on Fang Zhao’s peaceful demeanor but refrained so as to gauge his mood some more. "I was worried you were stuck in your head and would do something silly."
The silly deed has been done, Fang Zhao thought to himself.
Noticing the genuine emotion on Zeng Huang face, Fang Zhao responded, "I’m OK."
"That's great. As long as you’ve thought things through. Xiao Hong…" Zeng Huang stopped when he realized it’d be cruel to mention his ex-girlfriend so soon after the breakup. He shifted gears and said, "That scumbag Fang Sheng must be pleased with himself. Big Zhao, are you going to sue him? He could fool an outsider but not us. Those are clearly your songs. Someone of Fang Sheng’s talent couldn’t have possibly composed them."
"No need, for now," Fang Zhao said.
"If you’re worried about money, Wan Yue and I still have some savings left."
"Really, there’s no need. I don’t have time to wrangle with him now," Fang Zhao said. "The new talent contest has begun. I need to catch up."
Zeng Huang was dumfounded. He never would have thought that Fang Zhao would still make a run for it this late in the game. Two months had passed in the current season of the new talent competition. Only one more was left. Entering in June was doable, but Fang Zhao didn't have any presentable material to submit.
Zeng Huang was skeptical, but since Fang Zhao had found his mojo again, Zeng Huang didn’t want to rain on his parade. As long as Fang Zhao could survive this rough patch...
"In that case, go get ‘em! Let us know if you need anything. Do you have enough money?" After blurting out the question, Zeng Huang worried he would hurt Fang Zhao’s pride. After all, Fang Zhao hated it when people mentioned his tight finances.
Before Zeng Huang could explain himself, Fang Zhao said, "I still have a bit of cash. It’ll last me for another month or so."
"Oh… That’s great. But you have to let us know if you end up in a tight spot."
"Got it. I’m going into lockdown mode starting today."
"Lockdown" was slang favored by creative types. It meant they had to immerse in their work and tune everyone and everything out.
Zeng Huang knew that meant Fang Zhao was getting ready to compose again and that he shouldn’t intrude unless it was urgent. Fang Zhao had been in that headspace before, but when Fang Zhao gave them the heads up in the past, he sounded resentful. Now he didn’t. He just spoke matter-of-factly.
Zeng Huang was glad to see that Fang Zhao didn’t resent him and Wan Yue after Fang Sheng’s betrayal, actually seeming friendlier instead. The five of them had grown up together through thick and thin. Zeng Huang was the oldest of the group. After they were orphaned, he felt responsible for the rest of the group, like an older brother. Still, as they grew up, the five of them drifted apart.
Yet Zeng Huang had still been worried after what happened. Fang Zhao didn’t live on campus and hadn't told them where he lived. They hadn't known where to look. Fang Zhao hadn't answered his phone either, so Zeng Huang and Wan Yue had been at a loss. Now that he had confirmed Fang Zhao was stable, Zeng Huang could finally relax.
After hanging up on Zeng Huang, Fang Zhao looked up his agent Du Ang’s number and placed a call.
As soon as the call went through, a furious-looking Du Ang lashed out. "Fang Zhao, what the hell is going on? You still want to become a permanent employee? Are you giving up on the new talent contest? What’s the date, huh? It’s nearly June. June! Do you know what that means? It’s cutthroat time for this season’s new talent competition. Out of our 10 interns, six have entered the contest. Of the four who haven’t, three have already submitted their songs. They’ve finished recording and will launch their singles tomorrow. You’re the only one left. Where’s yours, Fang Zhao?"
"I’m not finished yet," Fang Zhao responded. At this juncture, any other comment was bullshit to the volcanic Du Ang. What Du Ang wanted were results. Other circumstances like whether your work was stolen or not—those didn’t fall within his purview.
Du Ang glared in disbelief and took a deep breath. In the hologram, his bulging eyes stared at Fang Zhao as if they were about to erupt.
In the end, Du Ang maintained his temper. It wasn't that he didn’t want to chew Fang Zhao out; he didn’t want to waste time.
Du Ang said emphatically, "Ten days. If you can give me something in 10 days, I’ll sign you up for the contest. I’ll save a spot for you. If not, you’re gone." He hung up before Fang Zhao could respond.
Fang Zhao wasn’t upset by Du Ang’s temper. Du Ang was furious that Fang Zhao hadn’t turned in his songs after all this time and he couldn’t get through to him by phone. He had to do his job and couldn’t pretend nothing was going on. He had finally reached Fang Zhao, but still came away empty-handed. Naturally, he couldn’t be in a good mood.
Even though Du Ang sounded harsh on the phone, Fang Zhao knew from his new memory that his agent was on his side. He had lobbied for the 10-day extension. If it were any other agent, he wouldn’t have gotten five days, let alone 10. He might have even been fired by now.
The new talent contest Du Ang referred to, its centerpiece was the New Pioneers Chart, a listing coveted by all newcomers.
Not everyone qualified for the chart. Candidates had to be signed by a record company and vetted. Most were imminent music school graduates or fresh graduates. There were also a few standouts who were signed when they were still in school.
Many companies who hadn’t signed newcomers also followed the chart closely, hoping to scavenge among the leftovers. They were hoping to bag a promising newcomer or poach one from another company.
Speaking of the New Pioneers Chart, you had to mention one more thing. The birth of virtual idols was great for composers.
Who cared about the singer? The companies that created virtual idols could engineer a voice. Any technician could turn a toad’s croak into a heavenly cry. So in contrast, record labels that focused on virtual idols placed a greater premium on their technical and creative expertise. Any virtual idol release on the New Pioneers Chart shined the spotlight on the composer.
It was a huge opportunity for aspiring composers new to the music industry.
It was a battle between newcomers as well as a battle of company resources.
Fang Zhao got online on his bracelet. Just as Du Ang had said, among the interns who signed with Silver Wing Media at the same time he did, six had qualified for the new talent contest and five had already made the top 50. As long as the company kept promoting them, their songs would become even more popular. They would end the competition ranked even higher.