Chapter 4: Virtual Idols
On one hand, Fang Sheng departed brimming with ambition, leaving behind the endless chatter on the black street, while Fang Zhao didn’t bog himself down with thoughts about Fang Sheng either.
Perhaps everyone encountered loyalty and betrayal in their lives. In the apocalypse, such events were even more common. Familial love could turn into deep-seated hatred in an instant.
Revenge had to be exacted for the body’s original owner, but the most pressing task of the moment was to compose a new song for Silver Wing Media. If he missed his deadline, not only would he lose the great job he was on the cusp of landing, he would also miss out on this season’s new talent contest. Life would be more difficult as a result.
It was the end of May. Each season of the new talent contest lasted three months, and the contest was rebooted every three months. The New Pioneers Chart reserved for newcomers would also only be compiled for another month. This time of year was when the competition among newcomers was the fiercest. It was also when the major record labels pushed their trainees the hardest.
Fame and riches were guaranteed for those who made it. The road ahead would become smoother. Their record labels would promote them with maximum effort without prompting. But if they didn’t shine in the new talent contest, then industry insiders would cast them aside as poor prospects. Their careers would stall.
The original owner of the body took the contest very seriously. With two days left until June, Fang Zhao didn’t have much time left. It wouldn’t be worth the effort to challenge Fang Sheng over the copyright of those three songs—he had no evidence whatsoever. Fang Sheng was also prepared for the battle. The legal maneuvers could take up to two seasons and he might not walk away with anything. Meanwhile, he was missing out on the opportunity to shine.
After Fang Zhao returned the items to the store, he walked his dog another 100 meters or so to a drug store. The poison that the original owner of this body bought to kill himself wasn’t available at your usual drug store. Heavy medication usually required a prescription, but black streets operated by a different set of rules. If there was a will, there was a way.
The drug store wasn’t big. It was typically quite empty at this time of day. A man half-haphazardly wearing a lab coat was sleeping on the counter. When Fang Zhao walked in, the motion detector by the entrance sounded a ding.
The man raised his head with effort and glanced at the entrance with a yawn, wearing the expression of someone half-asleep. He froze when he saw Fang Zhao.
The owner of the drug store was quite surprised. He still remembered how the same young man showed up with a death wish yesterday. He had tried to talk the young man out of it to no avail. He’d thought that yet another person was about to vanish from the black street. Things like that happened on black streets way too often—someone would commit suicide after losing the will to live. Like the bugs that festered in the street corners of black streets, their death hardly caused a ripple.
Fang Zhao’s reappearance caught him off-guard. He prided himself in having seen it all, but he never would have guessed that the same person would show up again in a completely different state of mind.
Unless the drug purchase wasn’t for suicide? The shop owner started to wonder.
That couldn’t be right either. He trusted his judgment as a practicing doctor. Odds were that the person bought the medication to commit suicide but for some reason changed his mind.
The surprise only lasted briefly and he recovered quickly.
On any given black street, there were people who abused themselves to death, and there were people who found a purpose overnight.
“Looking for medication?” the shop owner asked.
“No. Can I trouble you to check out the dog?” Fang Zhao handed the dog to the store owner.
The owner retreated in disdain. “I’m not a vet.”
Fang Zhao pressed on, saying, “Can’t you just take a look?” There were no vets nearby. Vet clinics were expensive and hard to come by. Fang Zhao knew from his new memory that this shop owner had once treated a bird.
“I’ll give it a shot,” the owner responded. He was free anyway. There was no point in turning down business. It was OK if the job didn’t pay well as long as he turned a profit.
He had the necessary devices and equipment. He might not have been able to handle a complex diagnosis, but he could conduct a basic checkup.
Fang Zhao surveyed the equipment the owner fiddled with. That, coupled with fragments of his new memory, made him realize that there had been significant technological advancements since his time. Bulky equipment had become portable and each piece of equipment could serve multiple functions. The steps for operation had been dumbed down. Even an ordinary person without medical training could use these devices to conduct a minor checkup on himself or herself, let alone a professional doctor.
About two minutes later, the owner had a diagnosis. “It’s nothing major. It’s malnourished from hunger. It’ll get better on a full stomach.”
People in the New Era preferred large dogs. During the apocalypse, a batch of dogs went mad and became the enemy. Another group was trained as guard dogs and fought alongside human beings. When all electronic devices failed, they became a huge help. Some of the monuments marking the Period of Destruction included dog sculptures to honor their sacrifice during the end-of-days war. The unit Fang Zhao served in also had a dog.
Another batch of dogs neither went crazy nor were drafted into service. They kept a low profile during the near-apocalypse. Few of them survived.
He didn’t know whether the dog before him was descended from those honored army dogs or the few strays who survived the war, but judging from the face of the dog and the color of its fur, even if it was the offspring of those storied dogs, it was an undistinguished descendant. It wasn’t worth keeping. The shop owner had labeled the dog a failure.
The shop owner gauged Fang Zhao again. The way he looked yesterday, he could barely keep himself alive. What would he do with a worthless dog?
“You’re gonna… raise this dog?” the owner asked.
Fang Zhao looked at the dog. Maybe it understood the question. It looked back and wagged its tail.
“I’m going to keep it for now,” Fang Zhao said. It was serendipitous that it was the first living thing he saw when he woke up. Even though his finances were tight, Fang Zhao was confident that things would improve quickly. He couldn’t continue to live off the little cash that the original owner of the body left behind.
The owner didn’t say anything more. It was someone else’s call. All he had to care about was getting paid and doing his job. He pointed to the dog and said, “Its fur is all tied up in knots. Who knows how long it’s been out on the streets for. You won’t be able to wash it thoroughly. It would be a waste of time and money. Why don’t you have it shaved instead.”
“Then let’s give it a shave. How much would it cost?”
“The checkup is 50 and the shave 100. But you look like you don’t have much cash. I’ll charge 50 for the shave for a total of 100,” the owner said. He wasn’t price gouging; that was indeed the market rate. And why was he willing to offer a discount? It was impossible to say what the future held for someone who clawed his way back from dire straits. Examples like that were hard to find on a black street, but he had come across a few. He was just going with the flow in extending a kindness. For him, it was still a good deal. Even if the man decided to commit suicide again, he wouldn’t suffer a loss at that price.
His own meal only cost 10 dollars and yet he splurged 100 on the dog. Why bother? Fang Zhao did an imaginary shake of his head. Still, he was reborn today, so he was happy and impulsive. Whether he would keep the dog or proceed alone, that was up to the dog.
After Fang Zhao paid with his bracelet and learned from the owner that the shave would take an hour, he left the dog at the shop and went for a stroll. He wanted to get to know his new world better. He could only take care of business once he had a basic understanding.
He left the drug store and took the elevator to the 50th floor, then walked along the corridor to a dead end where there was a platform. It was a train station. People were already lining up.
The sight of freeways sprouting from the side of buildings like a spider web and extending to higher ground like veins was a huge visual shock. The images from his new memory weren’t as powerful as the real thing.
It had been 500 years.
Five hundred years since the apocalypse.
The alarm signaling the arrival of a train sounded and the 100-meter-long train that was part of public transportation slowed down as it approached. Drawing from his new memory, Fang Zhao flashed his bracelet against a touch pad on the train door. He found a seat by the window when he entered the compartment.
It was 2 in the afternoon. There weren’t that many passengers at this hour. The students and commuters were already gone, so the train was quite empty.
The skyscrapers became a blur as the train sped along.
The area was filled with mass housing blocks. They were built flush against each other, not leaving much space in between. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many black streets. But once the train left the neighborhood, the horizon opened up instantly. Sunshine refracted through the train windows sporadically. On distant buildings, silhouettes shimmered on huge screens.
Celebrities, ads, marketing campaigns…
While technology advanced in leaps and bounds, so did the entertainment industry. After the apocalypse, everything moved forward at an increasing speed. Fang Zhao couldn’t find any trace of the near-apocalypse and the times leading up to it.
“Look, it’s Mi Yu!”
“My idol. The bracelet she endorsed has sold out. I couldn’t place an order online.”
“I hear Mi Yu is about to stage a concert. Have you bought tickets yet? The online scalping is insane!”
Fang Zhao took in the giant screen hanging to a distant skyscraper as he listened to the discussion between several young women sitting in front of him. On the screen, a young woman with a nearly perfect body was dazzling viewers with her beauty. Every smile and every wink suggested an irresistible charm. Not a single flaw could be found on her pretty face. Her full figure exuded infinite sexual energy. Staring into those kind, sparkly eyes, anyone would easily miss a heartbeat.
She was indeed a beauty. Fang Zhao agreed on that much. During the near-apocalypse, survival was the top priority. Man or woman, no one had the time to tend to their appearances. A stunning sight like that was unheard of.
The only thing was, Fang Zhao got a weird vibe as soon as he laid eyes on the woman with the charming smile on the screen. Soon his new memory told him why.
This wasn’t a real person.
Fang Zhao kept staring at the screen until it was out of sight.
The perfect marriage of technology and art.
The so-called virtual idol wasn’t someone who existed in flesh and blood. It was an artificial creation that stemmed from advanced technology.
Virtual idols were born into virtual worlds. They looked no different than actual human beings. They were the fad for some time, crowding out many of the superstars who were their contemporaries. They had boxed real idols and celebrities into a corner, even forcing some of them to retire. Even though real idols and celebrities were now dominant again, virtual idols were still a force to be reckoned with. They were a product with global recognition.
A media mogul who backed real celebrities once commented that virtual idols were monsters born into the virtual world. If they weren’t stamped out, as long as they could find some reprieve, they would stage a comeback that would spell doom for real idols.