“What does it say about me,” Vivian wondered aloud to herself, “that I’m alone on a Wednesday night, drinking in a dive bar that never left the 2050s.” She sighed, running a fingertip along the rim of her glass. Thousands of miles from home, dropped from her dream college, another drink or two and she’d scarcely have enough for lukewarm noodle soup to get her through the week. When had things gone so wrong?

“Says you hate the weekend crowd,” a stranger replied, her voice melodic, warm, and silky. “No more, no less.”

Vivian turned to look at the person who had intruded into her personal monologue of self-pity, offering a wan smile in return. The woman’s platinum hair pulled back into a simple pony-tail, her eyes were deep sapphires in the dark bar. She almost had to fight to not get lost in those eyes.

“I don’t know about that,” Vivian mumbled after what felt like long seconds, finally tearing herself from the stranger’s gaze. “I think it paints me pretty well – just a dumb girl who got in over her head.” She smiled in spite of herself. Self-deprecation had become a routine escape since she left the school.

“I know a thing or two about that,” the stranger shrugged sympathetically, gesturing for the bartender to refill her and Vivian’s drinks. “Without intending to minimize your current dramas, you look pretty far from rock bottom, all things considered. Hong Kong can be pretty cruel when it thinks you aren’t looking.”

“I was supposed to be happy here,” Vivian offered, voice filled with self-pity. “I was supposed to do great things. Instead…”

“Instead you’re in a retro-themed dive bar in the middle of nowhere, right?” the other woman finished for her.

Vivian nodded glumly, holding her head in her hands. She realized the bartender had poured her a fresh drink and sipped at it meekly, hoping to make it last.

“What did you want to do here?” the woman asked, cocking her head slightly to the side, regarding Vivian’s despair.

“I create interactive art. Augmented reality pieces that change depending on who’s looking at them; based their social media profile, their ethnicity, even their height. Everyone sees something slightly different.”

“Hong Kong sounds like the perfect market for that,” the stranger offered, intrigued. “Is that what brought you here from the Americas?” Her voice didn’t carry an accent to Vivian’s ears, painting the stranger as coming from Anytown, UCAS.

Vivian nodded slowly as she continued to sip her drink. “Specialized responsive design and programming schools; cutting-edge stuff they don’t even have at MIT&T. It was supposed to be my chance to make a name for myself.”

“Let me guess,” the velvet-voiced stranger suggested. “You fell for the wrong person, got caught up in something you shouldn’t have.”

Vivian burst into uncontrolled sobbing, fruitlessly trying to stifle her tears. She tried not to think of Alan and his empty promises, but their first meeting stuck on repeat in her mind, a continual loop of the moment everything started to fall apart.

“Hey, hey,” the stranger said with genuine empathy, rubbing Vivian’s upper back with her near hand. “I didn’t mean to dredge anything up; I’ve been there myself, right smack in the middle of Hell before I knew it.” She continued to console the teary-eyed Vivian, waving off the bartender when he looked over to check on the pair.

“Everything was supposed to be so different,” she sobbed, wiping her nose on a dirty drink napkin. “My art was finally going to take me somewhere.”

“It looks like it’s already taken you halfway around the world.”

“But not any farther,” Vivian spat out, her hand slapping the bartop for emphasis. “I’m sorry, I just – it wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

The stranger nodded solemnly. “Not so long ago I met someone who told me he could make me a superstar. Instead he got me hooked on BTL chips, forced me to get invasive implants, and made me his personal slave. I couldn’t even see ‘normal’ from how far I had fallen.”

“How did you get out?” Vivian asked, having earlier noted the woman’s fine clothing and expensive, chic jewelry. High-quality but not flashy. There was a woman doing well for herself.

She shrugged. “Someone gave me a chance. It wasn’t easy, for either of us, but we made it work, got through it. Shared a few scars. It was a long road to rediscover who I always was, but in the end I just needed someone to believe in me and keep me focused on getting clean. I did the work, but I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Vivian nodded heavily, tears having traced rivulets down her cheeks. “I just wanted to create, to express myself.”

Once, long ago, when troubles came your way
You couldn’t take them on yourself,
But you knew just what to do,
To find someone who would help…

The sound system began playing one of Maria Mercurial’s breakout hits, “Tell it to Mister,” the 2048 single that rocketed her into super-stardom. A true classic but a little too on-the-nose, Vivian thought. She’d heard the song a thousand times before, but whether due to her situation or something else nagging at the back of her mind, it felt uncomfortably close to home. Luckily the woman next to her waved for the bartender to change the tune.

“Pain can inspire great art,” the stranger offered, leaving her hand reassuringly on Vivian’s shoulder.

“Did making art help you?”

The woman chuckled to herself, a rich sound that made Vivian self-conscious for having asked. “Yes it did, more than I ever expected. I didn’t stop when things got better though, that’s important. The art was for me, far more than it was for anyone else.”

Vivian nodded with understanding. “I don’t want to give up on my dreams, I just can’t see a way forward.”

“I’ll tell you what,” the strange woman with the too-smooth voice offered, pulling out an old-style business card from a small clutch on her lap. “I can get you an introduction to someone who’s doing visuals for a big gig coming up. It’s just an introduction – you have to prove you have what it takes, yourself.”

Vivian looked up at her questioningly, accepting the card without glancing at it. “But why? You’ve just met me.”

The woman shrugged, a playful smile on her perfect face. “I like your idea, and think there’s a real future in it. Besides, maybe I have a soft spot for people chasing their dreams.” She gave Vivian’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Call the number, he’s only in Hong Kong for a few more days.”

Vivian nodded as the woman stood, leaving enough money on the bar to cover several more rounds. “Don’t go overboard,” she warned as a joke. “You have a big day tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” Vivian said, finding herself drawn into the stranger’s eyes. “I’ll make the call.”

“Good girl. Show the world just who it’s been messing with.” And with that, the stranger was gone, leaving the small bar worse for it, Vivian thought.

Finishing her drink, she decided against getting another. The night had been long enough and her self-pity had been well and truly drowned by that point. Some sleep – hopefully without dreams – would do her well. Half-waving to the bartender, she made her way back onto the neon streets of the foreign city where she had sought to make her mark.

Jamming her hands into small jacket pockets, she felt the business card the strange woman had given her. Stopping under the fuchsia glow of a nearby billboard, she finally turned it over, reading the name.

Markus Grüller
Tour Manager for Maria Mercurial

Mouth agape, Vivian was instantly sober. Tomorrow would be a big day, indeed.

Header image taken by @noealz, a very talented Asia-based photographer whose works continually inspire me, particularly in regard to near-future works like the above. I definitely encourage you to check out his work and buy some prints!