The corridor went on for a while under cold neon lights, doors on both sides the same uniform beige. Stairs coming down from somewhere ended at a wood and glass partition that kept the two spaces apart. Had someone been there, they might have heard a muffled thump followed by hurried shuffling behind the opaque lower half of the barrier.
"Ow! Let me see!"
"Stop pushing! What are you, twelve?"
"Yes! What's your excuse?"
"I'm thirteen," whined a third voice.
A mass of curly black hair rose behind the window, followed by a pair of bright eyes, then two more. They filed into the hallway: a brown girl in a pink dress; a short boy with vaguely Asian features; one other boy, tall and thin, with freckled face and too-big glasses. He looked around uncertainly.
"Which way now?"
"My informer says it's room two-oh-nine," the girl whispered with assurance.
The boy squinted at nearby room numbers. "To the left?"
"Left it is," she confirmed, and went that way without waiting. Both boys started in opposite directions.
"The other left!" she added over her shoulder. The target of those words trundled back on thick legs, sweating in his polo shirt and short slacks.
It wasn't far. The door looked like any other, but for the sign saying ON AIR. The lamp was off.
"Means we can go in, right?" asked one boy.
"What if someone's there?" countered the other.
"Let's find out," said the girl, and knocked.
Echoes rolled away like thunder, making them cringe. No-one answered.
"Here goes nothing," she concluded, and pressed the handle.
The room felt huge. A maze of server racks with bundles of cables running between them. MIDI keyboards perched on flimsy stands. An empty coffee cup forgotten between monitors on a desk, with a microphone hanging from above.
Among it all stood a transparent column lit from inside. There floated the shape of an older girl, perhaps fifteen or sixteen. She had long straight hair and black make-up that matched her streetwear, from the big stompy boots to the headphones with cat ears on top.
"Oh, wow, that's her! That's really her. We've made it!"
"Guys, I think she's looking at us."
The shorter boy puffed up his chest. "Don't be silly, that's just a..."
"I'm right here, you know," the older girl said suddenly.
The intruders ran for the door without another word. It swung on its hinges with a soft hiss and closed right in their faces.
"Oh no, you don't. Come back here."
They did so, with feet of clay.
"That's better. Who are you?" The host loomed over them, hands on her hips.
"My name is Mouna," the other girl said. "Er... nice to meet you?"
"I'm George," stated the shorter boy. "We mean no harm."
"Robert," added the tall one. He tried unsuccessfully to stick his shirt back into his jeans. "Please don't tell our parents."
"Delighted,", said the host after listening carefully. Her expression didn't really match. "I'm Thea Lectro."
Thea smiled. "Oh, my. I'm famous." Her sing-song voice had a tint of reverb.
"Very!" Mouna nodded forcefully. "But everyone says you're not real."
"I'm not real?" Thea looked herself over, turning this way and that.
George opened his mouth to answer, then pivoted to watch Robert return from the far end of the room. "Where have you been?"
"Figured someone else might be in here." He eyed Thea doubtfully.
"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," she boomed. "Just kidding. Everyone's out to lunch."
"Someone could be in another room," mused George. Thea blinked at him, doing a little dance, or perhaps an idle animation.
Mouna broke the silence. "Is it true you write your own songs?"
"Why, yes, thanks for asking. Mom has been teaching me how to do it."
Robert looked doubtful. "Mom?"
"Everyone says Dr. Higgins is my mom." It was the kids' turn to fall silent. "I'll let you in on a secret: she wrote my first albums."
"Those were better," said George.
Mouna elbowed him. "Speak for yourself."
"Don't you get bored in here all alone?" asked Robert suddenly.
"Mmm... Sometimes. Mom says I need more friends my own age."
"Do you have any?" ventured Mouna.
Thea rubbed her chin. "I have Juan. He's our sysadmin. Wanna see?"
She put a hand behind her back and brought out a photo, that she held for the visitors to see. It depicted her on a high-tech sound stage, in a skimpier version of her outfit, holding a boy another year or two older than her.
"That's a photo manipulation," accused George.
"A girl can dream."
"You know image editing too, or did he make this?" the boy pressed on.
"That doesn't..." the boy started, but Mouna interrupted. "He looks like a good catch. Congrats, Thea!"
The older girl blew her a kiss. It turned into little pink hearts that floated outward until they hit the transparent surface, and scattered into voxels.
"Do you have a boyfriend?" she asked earnestly.
"No way. Mom would kill me. Says I'm too young."
"Speaking of which," Robert chimed in, "Wasn't your debut just a couple of years ago, Thea?"
"And what are you insinuating, mmm?" Her voice changed. "The Video Girl project has been running for fifteen years and a half now, and we've only scratched the surface."
The guests fell silent again, and Thea resumed her idle dancing. Then she stopped and pressed down on her headphones. "Anyway, you can ask mom if you don't believe me. Lunch break is over."
"Oh, no!" George started flailing. "Let's go before we're caught."
"They don't check the security footage that often," Thea offered.
Mouna facepalmed. "I forgot about the cameras!"
"Aaaaa!" added Robert.
"Please let us go," George pleaded.
"Of course." The door hissed open again. "I have no control over the locks."
They ran towards the exit, then Mouna stopped and looked back. "Can we talk again, Thea?"
"That would rock!" the older girl chirped. "I'm @TheRealThea on FriendSpace."
All three kids were out the door by the time she finished saying it. The girl watched the empty room for a moment, then put a hand behind her back, took out a smartphone and started thumbing it hurriedly, a broad smile on her face.
Outside, birds chirped furiously as they chased each other through the foliage of trees. The occasional car drove by slowly, splitting bike traffic like a boat through water. They crossed the street to where a big screen TV in a store window showed Thea Lectro's latest music video, drawing a gaggle of preteens.
"I'm going to be a computer scientist when I grow up," said George. "What about you, Mouna?"
"Ha! I'm gonna be a lawyer for AI rights. And you, Robert?"
"Maybe just a good boyfriend someday," the taller boy answered hesitantly.
"Ewww!" went the other two.
They walked on, dancing to the latest hit song by their new friend.