"You want to know why we have big ships?" Jiang Ying sat in the back of the agency's car, absently squeezing some soft-shell walnuts. "I dunno. It just popped up one day. I don't really remember when."
Assistant Chen's big ship was reserved for his girlfriend of three years. He couldn't quite approve of the sort of ship that existed between Jiang Ying and Qi Zhu, which seemed to be kept afloat by constant bickering alone.
The complimentary gift the event organizers had prepared for their presenters was pretty nice. Jiang Ying had brought it along with him in the end. The fat little stuffed penguin was soft and cuddly.
"Don't pay any more attention to the stuff on Weibo," Assistant Chen warned. "The agency will get the trending topic removed tonight."
"Relax. I swear I won't get into any fights on my main." Jiang Ying hugged the penguin while making his solemn vow. "But honestly? I think the modern netizen needs to be more aware of the consequences of their actions when they talk shit about people behind their backs."
"Oh, that's right—" Assistant Chen suddenly remembered a different matter. "There's an upcoming TV drama that the agency wants you to audition for."
"Which one?" Jiang Ying had been getting ready to climb out of the car. His hand paused on the handle.
"The adaptation of that hugely popular IP from a while back. A xianxia tragedy, 'An Auspicious Snow'."
"Who would I be auditioning for?" Jiang Ying stroked the penguin doll in his arms. "Definitely not the male lead. I know my limits. With my reputation and my current popularity level, I can't bag a male lead."
Assistant Chen smiled. "The director is considering you for the main antagonist. Xuan Moling."
"Why?" Jiang Ying didn't follow.
"Because…" Assistant Chen hesitated for a few seconds. Then, rapidly, he blurted out, "Because the director thinks you're practically a villain in real life, so most netizens would probably be happy to see the protagonist beat you up."
Hastily, Assistant Chen added, "Those were the director's words. Plus, netizens voted for you for this role. Public opinion says you would be a good fit."
Jiang Ying was baffled.
"Nope, won't do it," he said. "I may be controversial, but I have my pride."
He tucked the penguin under one arm and, with his other hand, grabbed the paper bag Qi Zhu had given him. As he climbed out of the car, he called out, "My acting sucks. The original work and the script are both good. These people put a lot of work into the story, so I won't get in the way and ruin everything."
Jiang Ying waved goodbye to Assistant Chen under the street lights, then turned and headed home.
Chen Shu watched Jiang Ying go. Once the younger man was out of sight, Chen Shu helplessly shook his head and made a phone call.
"He turned it down?" Jiang Xun asked from the other end of the line.
"He turned it down," Chen Shu confirmed. "He says he doesn't want to ruin a good script."
"I'll talk to him later." With that, Jiang Xun hung up.
Qi Zhu was so not cute, but the penguin was adorable. Jiang Ying put the stuffed penguin on his pillow, then turned his attention to the AI speaker. The manual that came with the speaker said it housed an artificial intelligence program that could converse with the user. Moreover, the AI could learn and adjust its functions according to the conversations between it and its user.
"Hello, hello. I'm Gossip Buddy," the speaker greeted. It chirped an introduction of its own accord as soon as Jiang Ying plugged it in.
"Childish," Jiang Ying muttered. He glanced at the speaker, but didn't offer a response.
"My favorite hobby is singing!" the speaker continued, relentless. "What's your favorite hobby?"
"My hobby…" Okay, so maybe Jiang Ying was the teensiest, tiniest bit intrigued now. "It's too refreshing, you wouldn't understand."
Crappy actor Jiang Ying had a carefree disposition. His hobbies were few and far between. Besides arguing and talking shit, he pretty much just liked to gossip about juicy celebrity scandals.
And he didn't just gossip. Other gossip hounds sipped their tea then went on with their lives. Jiang Ying diligently collected every scrap of juicy gossip that arose in the entertainment industry.
Who went heinously off-key during a performance. Who got into a big fight with their biggest fans. Jiang Ying had committed each and every one of these little scandals to memory; he remembered them even better than the celebrities they involved.
His hard drive was full of dirt. When he weighed acting against collecting dirt on other celebrities, Jiang Ying may have had to admit that he enjoyed the latter much more.
When it came to celebrity scandals, he knew more than most tabloids.
Jiang Ying turned on his computer. He clicked open a folder named 'Qi Zhu' and dragged a video file from his desktop into that folder.
That folder was full of the dirt Jiang Ying had collected on Qi Zhu. It included little incidents like Qi Zhu misidentifying his fans shortly after he debuted, to bigger scandals like Qi Zhu getting aggressive with people on set. Jiang Ying had collected every single story about Qi Zhu and saved them all in that folder.
"Qi Zhu's scandals are way cuter than him," Jiang Ying muttered under his breath. "The person himself is no good."
The artificial speaker behind Jiang Ying only picked up on the name he'd spoken. It automatically ran a search and reported, "Qi Zhu. Popular actor. Rumored to be the son of famous director Qi An. His works include…"
"Buddy, shut up." Jiang Ying turned around at the sound of the speaker and instinctively retorted, "Qi Zhu is just a sexless ice prince."
"Okay, message received. This entry has been updated. Qi Zhu is just a sexless ice prince," said 'Buddy', like a good little student. "The corrected definition will be provided next time!"
Jiang Ying cocked his head to the side.
"Well, whatever. Suit yourself." Jiang Ying figured it wouldn't matter. He didn't often mention Qi Zhu's name at home, anyway.
During the charity dinner, Qi Zhu had just so happened to notice when Jiang Ying flipped him off. Then, he'd proceeded to skip over the middle part of his speech in his distraction. Somehow, Jiang Ying was the only one who'd noticed.
After the dinner, Jiang Ying had gone out of his way to ask the event organizers for the video of Qi Zhu's speech. He needed it for his records. The 50 gigabytes of dirt he had on Qi Zhu grew by one more file.
The perfect Qi Zhu that was idolized by his fans wasn't so perfect in Jiang Ying's folder.
After taking a shower, Jiang Ying found three missed calls on his cell phone. All from his big brother.
"What's up?" Jiang Ying asked when he called back.
"It's about the drama. Did your assistant already tell you about it?" Jiang Xun asked.
"Ge," Jiang Ying deadpanned. "Do you know what time it is? You have a sex life. If you don't go enjoy that life at this time of night, and waste time worrying about your little brother instead, Weiwei will be unhappy."
"Who said you could call him Weiwei?" Jiang Xun retorted. "But, in any case, he looks pretty happy to me."
Before Jiang Ying could change the subject again, Jiang Xun forcibly dragged them back to the reason for his call. "Enough chatter, let's talk business. Xuan Moling from 'An Auspicious Snow'. Netizens voted for you to take the role, and the director of that drama is friends with our dad. They hope you'll give it a shot."
Jiang Ying was silent for a few seconds before he said, a little embarrassed, "Has the director… not seen the idol drama where I totally bombed?"
"It's true. He hasn't seen it. But he believes the son of a legendary movie star can't be all that bad at acting." Jiang Xun paused for a few seconds as well. Then he continued, "Day after tomorrow, nine in the morning. Don't be late. Just get yourself to the audition. The rest is whatever."
"He'll give up on me," Jiang Ying said with complete certainty. "With my shitty acting skills and awful delivery, he'll definitely… oh, by the way, I have a middle school reunion that night. The audition had better not run long."
"Alright, then it's settled," Jiang Xun said. Before hanging up, he added, "Happy early birthday, by the way. If there's anything you want, text it to me on WeChat."
That night, at half past eleven, one of Jiang Ying's WeChat groups started to buzz with activity.
[Qi Jun]: Big-Clawed Crab, Big-Clawed Crab~ Jiang Ying, you there?
[Zheng Yinyin]: Big-Clawed Crab.
[Big-Clawed Crab]: I'm here, I'm here. HonkingLaugh.jpg
[Qi Jun]: Are you coming to the party the day after tomorrow?
[Big-Clawed Crab]: Of course.
[Zheng Yinyin]: We haven't met up in ages since we graduated, but it doesn't feel like we've grown distant at all.
[Big-Clawed Crab]: For real.
[Qi Jun]: Seriously. Back in school, Jiang Ying would be scolded during morning announcements every other day. Now, he's scolded on Weibo's trending topics list every other day. It feels like we see you all the time. Never change.
[Big-Clawed Crab]: ……
[Qiao Yue]: Big-Clawed Crab, serious question. Is Qi Zhu coming to the reunion?
[Qi Jun]: He doesn't seem to use WeChat, and he hasn't responded to us on QQ. Jiang Ying, go ask him for us. You guys may fight all the time, but you were deskmates. You guys are still in contact, right?
[Big-Clawed Crab]: Okaaay, I'll ask right now. I won't fail.
Jiang Ying looked at the time. It wasn't yet midnight, and Qi Zhu probably hadn't gone to bed yet. Jiang Ying switched over to QQ and pulled up the chat interface with 'Class Monitor'. The last message was still the 'oh' from Qi Zhu, sent two hours ago.
Jing Ying had always thought this person was way too dull and boring. It was fine if he didn't use WeChat, but even on QQ, his avatar was still the default image of the app's penguin mascot.
[Big-Clawed Crab]: [poke poke]
[Big-Clawed Crab]: [poke poke]
[Big-Clawed Crab]: [poke poke]
[Class Monitor]: Good evening. I'm not presently available and will reach out to you at a later date.
Well, there was no way out of it now. Jiang Ying could only scroll through his address book, pull up Qi Zhu's phone number, and call him directly.
Qi Zhu had been reviewing a new script in his living room. When he returned to his bedroom, he saw a crab avatar flickering in the lower right corner of his computer monitor. Frowning, he set aside his script and clicked on the notification. Before he could even begin to type a response, his phone started ringing with a call from the other party.
"Popular actors really are busy," Jiang Ying complained as soon as the call connected. "They don't even have time to check their messages."
"No busier than you. You're still trending, and yet you have time to pick a fight with me?" Qi Zhu's tone was rather mild. It was difficult to tell what he was thinking or feeling.
Jiang Ying sighed mournfully. "Not looking for a fight this time. I'm calling on official business. Are—hey, what are you doing?"
Jiang Ying suddenly heard the sound of rustling pages from Qi Zhu's end of the line.
"Reading a script. I took a new drama. It's pretty urgent. I'll have to be on set soon," Qi Zhu said.
"Then I won't bother you, I'll just ask what I came to ask," Jiang Ying said, starting to speak more rapidly. "Qi Zhu, you—"
On the other end of the line, Qi Zhu heard an automated, impersonal voice interrupt Jiang Ying.
"Qi Zhu… Qi Zhu is just a sexless ice prince!"
Qi Zhu blinked, confused.
Jiang Ying fell silent.
Artificial intelligence? More like artificial stupidity.