Published November 30, 2007
By Logan Rapp: See the linked file: http://loganrapp.wordpress.com/2007/11/30/zeros-and-ones/
"Zeros and Ones
The phone on the nightstand vibrates and Dee (Denise) Riley jumps awake from it, sitting up right. Her alarm clock says 3:30 am, but it's wrong – she sets her clock half an hour ahead to trick herself into getting to class on time. The lamp's too far away and she blindly reaches for it, knocking the clock over, cursing, and lets her fingers be a seismograph until she finds it.
The caller ID is restricted.
She hits the button to answer. "Hello?"
Pause. If this is a telemarketer she's going to call the Better Business Bureau.
A woman's voice pierces clearly into the call. Deep, sultry. Possibly evil. As though a cabaret singer moonlighted as a dominatrix.
"Listen closely," she says. "This is my story now."
Saturday morning. No school, no work. Dee was hung over but she had a pen and notepad nearby, conditioned by the game. A UCLA student, sometimes it would get in the way, and her entire documentary crew felt the effects. Meeting at a Starbucks in North Hollywood, it was supposed to be a production meeting. It devolved into Redearth talk.
"Sometimes it's not even a game," Dee said.
Her cinematographer, Tom, another player, asked: "What do you mean?"
"I don't know... like, a competition?" Dee says it more like a question than an answer. "Like you're trying to beat the game writers before they can write themselves out of it."
The show, Redearth88, had emerged. In 2006 the phenomenon of Lonelygirl15 hit YouTube, a young girl – pretty, with a love of physics, the nerd dream – video blogging in her bedroom with a mysterious religion. When it was revealed to be a production (falsely a "Hollywood" production) of fiction, the video series dropped from one million to half that, and still remained the most popular web series for the better part of six months, before it was claimed to have "jumped the shark" – gone so over the top as to lose suspension of disbelief.
A producer of the show left about this time to create a new one with the characters he owned from LG15, called Redearth88, in 2007. Following the trials of character Rachel, she is surrounded by unseen (occasionally heard) forces – Tachyon, Brother, and OpAPHID (the voice). The audience themselves can impact the story through decoding puzzles left behind to uncover clues that are meant to explain what happens, but usually only leave more questions.
It's the perfect way to keep people addicted.
"Ophelia called me," she said, using OpAPHID's "real" name.
It was a music mash-up. Clips of known songs mixed into one another, forcing the listener to take note of the lyrics and titles to try and decode the meaning behind what they're hearing.
The calls came out almost simultaneously. Three in the morning, but it hit at that time for all time zones in the American part of the world – a Hawaiian, Dee, a cattle rancher in Wyoming, someone from Austin, Texas, and a Sox fan who missed the call on account of the post-ACLS party in Boston, but got the voicemail. One call for each zone. Everyone answered it save for the Bostonian, and it was sheer luck that he didn't. Most listeners forgot pieces the first time around, or were hazy on the details, and only he had it recorded.
Forgetting details could be dangerous. A young Communications student, Maddison Atkins, video blogged her unexpected investigation into a mysterious messenger; it's still believed this messenger was an enemy or a member OpAPHID, or Ophelia herself (OpAPHID is short for Operation APHID, each initial in APHID corresponding to a particular mode of action; Analyze Protect Hinder Infiltrate Destroy. Yet OpAPHID is also considered a character as well as an organization).. However, the last puzzle this person sent her was never decoded, and her last video was posted by someone other than her, showing Maddison and her working partner's murder.
Dee was scarred by the video. Maddison's just a character, she kept telling herself.
"Rachel and Linc are just characters," Dee said. Rachel and her (potential) boyfriend Linc were the new on-screen investigators, and prime targets of the still not-completely-known enemy.
Tom shrugged. "Even fictional, a girl is still dead because the players weren't good enough."
The documentary was being delayed. Dee felt relieved – she wasn't feeling up for it and between class, the Game and her day job as a production assistant for NBC, something had to give and an expose about the Hollywood Homeless was not the most original topic to work on. "Dark Days pretty much made this little more than a resume-builder. No one's going to buy it," she said.
Tom and Dee were in Dee's bedroom. Tom was Dee's high school sweetheart out of Golden West in Visalia, California. He looked at the camera set up on tripod. A wide lens set up to get the full bedroom. If something good came about it, he'd put it up on YouTube for the rest of the players to get the answers without reading volumes of text.
"Let's go over the songs," Tom said.
"Heart," by Stars; "A Fifth of Beethoven," by Walter Murphy; "Young Black Teenagers," by Plead the Fifth; "Jumper," by Third Eye Blind; "The 15th," by Fischerspooner.
So what did they all mean?
"This is way too much," Dee said. She would say the same thing many times over. "I'm not joining the NSA."
"Yeah, but you could read my e-mail anytime you want," Tom was browsing through basic cryptography pages.
Numbers were clearly important. Third Eye Blind – three. "The 15th," - fifteen. Where did Heart fit in? Or was it Stars that they had to look at? Five, five, three, fifteen. That adds up to twenty-eight. Twenty-eight what? Twenty-eight girls like Rachel (it had been rumored she had something special in her blood)? Twenty-eight days until she would be murdered like Maddison? Linc enjoyed his alcohol – was he going into rehab for the typical twenty-eight days (as made popular by Sandra Bullock)?
The discussion lasted a couple of hours. Dee went on IRC chat and they were just as clueless. One of the more well-known decoders noted: It's going to be something staring at us in the face.
It had been two days since the mash-up. People were stumped. Neither Linc nor Rachel had posted a video since. The audience had been conditioned to fear long periods of silence. They never end happily.
"I'm worried," Tom said. "Linc's getting phone calls again."
Linc was a former member of OpAPHID, leaving on personal grounds and turning against his former employer. After Maddison's death, he disappeared for months, only to return out of money, all of which had been blown on alcohol and receiving phone calls from an unknown messenger. It was the same set up as Maddison, and Linc knew it. "I don't trust it," he said in a video. "I don't trust it at all."
A new video had surfaced – Linc was getting a phone call of the same music mash-up. He looked haggard, paranoid, possibly drunk. Rachel was partially oblivious to the danger. Linc didn't want to worry her yet, so he worried for both of them, and it was taking its toll on his appearance. But he noted he heard something at the beginning. The Bostonian had neglected to mention it – after twelve listen-throughs, he had accidentally cut out in his posted recording the start of the mashup, thinking it a glitch.
It was audio. Reversed audio.
A new version of the voicemail was uploaded to a player's personal site within minutes – and indeed, there it was. A garbled piece of audio, but clearly a voice whispering some evil Helter Skelter language.
"Fire up Audacity," Dee said.
Audacity is an open source audio editor tool. Constantly in development, but this was a basic feature – reversing audio. Re-reversing it, the audio came in nice and clear, a computerized whisper: Piece me together.
"Huh," Dee said. "I'm still..."
Tom shook his head. "Staring us in the face. Dude was right. And we're going to find out what it is way too late."
They walked away from the computer and went to lunch. They talked about the city, what they were going to do when they graduated, what their friends were going to do when they graduated. Anything other than the code that could spell life or death for characters that they have yet again become attached to. It was a vicious cycle. Actors get tired, or they get discovered, and the character has to go. The level of interaction between character and audience is far more intimate than Jack Bauer has with his. Characters will pop up in IRC, talk about the story that is their reality, and about the ups and downs of their audience's reality. For some characters, the producers were bored and posed as the characters. For some – people suspect Linc, as he was originally a one-man show before incorporating into Redearth – the character and the actor are one and the same.
Dee's cell phone played Justin Timberlake. She looked at the number, not recognizing it. Her eyes widened. "Shit." She answered. A brief moment, a timid hello?, and she relaxed.
"It's Jenni." she said. Jenni was another player, a coordinator. Dealing with crowds on the Internet was like herding cats blindfolded and over the phone.
And then she stopped. A quick goodbye, grabbing her keys. "New video. Time to go."
Dee had been living in the greater Los Angeles area for three years, and the rural driver in her from growing up in what she calls the "ass end" of the San Joaquin Valley somehow compliments the "fuck you" driving style of SoCal. She flowed from lane-to-lane, not so much bouncing through traffic but gliding. The car never jerked, no sudden twists, but even with an obscene number of airbags on his side Tom checked his seatbelt twice to be certain throughout the drive.
The typical week of video releases was one video a day, four or five videos a week. Occasionally a second video would be posted the same day, but usually the characters would make it clear one was on the way, or at least one could be on the way. No mention of a follow-up had been made. The video was coming in unannounced.
Tom had left the computer on in Dee's bedroom, connected to the chat room. "IRC [Internet Relay Chat]'s going nuts. I'm seeing a lot of exclamation points."
Dee took out her laptop. She sat on her bed. "What are they saying?"
"They're writing something, but it's certainly not my English. That's why I don't go into the chat room."
The video came on Dee's laptop. Not much more than twenty seconds long. The YouTube account was known as "warpylol," and Dee was already cursing before the video came on. Highly stylized, the video was the first person camera of a car speeding up to catch a bus. The camera pivots right, techno music underneath slowing down. Linc and Rachel are on the bus, Rachel holding her bag and looking behind her, Linc keeping himself in the aisle, between anyone else and Rachel, looking ahead. The video slowed and paused on them. Then the image shook, and dissolved into white.
Just before the video of Maddison's murder was released, the account had a video posted of a first-person view of someone walking up to Maddison's apartment. A similar effect – dissolve into white, as though the video were made of film, and the film just melted apart.
Third Eye Blind – not three, but third, or one-third. Plead the Fifth – one fifth. And so on. Until "Heart." With conversion, twelve fifteenths from the rest of the puzzle. Dee hadn't solved any of it. Tom was on the laptop – a Macbook Pro, the extra-wide seventeen inch screen. Wide enough to have his script on the right and IRC on the left.
Dee gave up – another two days had passed – she went back to the documentary. She didn't want to think about it. Scenes needed to be pre-edited anyway and that only requires the addition and subtraction of time, no countdown to an unknown time, no lives hanging in the balance (except maybe that wino on Magnolia).
"They think they have it," Tom said.
"I don't want to know."
Tom picked the laptop up and set it on the desk in front of Dee. "Captain Planet."
Heart. The fifth element. One fifth is three fifteenths. Piece me together. Fifteen fifteenths. Fifteen over fifteen.
The chat room text was streaming like movie credits.
"They just figured it out. They don't know what it means."
"Well, fifteen over fifteen is one," Dee said.
It was also a YouTube account. Tom saw it in the chat room, the horrible English, shorthand – 15over15. The video – a CG-generated dank room, a single light bulb hanging from it, on a chain. The bulb swings slightly from side to side. A string of numbers [insert numbers] pass through at the bottom, like a Fox News crawl.
"Coordinates," Tom said. He'd been waiting for this. He'd just downloaded a new iPhone application for navigation.
Dee started to bring up Google Earth on her computer.
"Don't you dare. I blew four hundred on this fucker," he said. Dee put her computer into sleep mode. Tom put the numbers in the iPhone. "It's right in Hollywood. La Cienega Park."
An old drop point – in 2006, during Lonelygirl15's peak, the now-Redearth character Tachyon had left a puzzle for players at the pay phones in La Cienega Park. Was she behind this? The audience widely considered her an ally. Now even that was in question.
Dee called Jenni. At every point in the game where players go to real-world locations, an impromptu team is created. Partially for safety, partially to make sure nothing is missed, and everyone wants to feel like a secret agent. Jenni was typically the Operator – the person who kept the Agents on the phone, reporting their progress to the rest of the group on IRC. Dee and Tom were closest. They went to the 2006 drop. This time Dee had a Bluetooth headset. She almost wrecked her car twice previously.
Directions said they were twenty minutes away. "We'll be there in ten," Dee said.
The drive took twenty minutes. Only metered parking was available. Tom said to go ahead and look around. Children had set up a lemonade stand along the sidewalk. La Cienaga is in the deep of Beverly Hills, point-blank with high rises and million dollar homes. Short of Las Vegas, it's one of the most highly-surveilled regions on Earth. As such, parents were at an odd distance from their children, as though they'd never seen Chris Hansen before. Dee went immediately to the pay phones, thinking the circle would be completed exactly. Tom stayed in the car even after paying the meter.
The phone almost immediately rang. She jumped, even expecting it, and caught the phone on the second ring. "Hello?"
"Rachel's missing." The voice was tense, monotone.
"Linc?" Dee turned toward the car. "Where are you?"
She did so. Through the twisting slide of the playground next to her she saw him – hair longer, unkempt, unshaven, but it was Linc. "Hi, Linc."
"I can't be online right now," he said. "And I can't trust too many people online."
Linc shook his head. "You think all the players are just on our team? Why do you think I used Op's voice on the mashup? I didn't think the good guys would get here so fast."
"Are you saying there's another faction?"
"I'm saying not all the people decoding alongside you are boy scouts." Linc looked around, and behind him, to the four-lane street with a tennis club on the opposite side. "See that Towncar?"
The Lincoln, black, had tinted windows in the back, and a lone man, with a newspaper, sat in the driver's seat. "Yeah?" Dee said.
"Been following me. I need you to distract it."
"Ask him for some change. Knock on the passenger window, put yourself in his line of sight. I don't know, something."
Dee shook her head. She looked back to Tom. "I don't know."
"Just do it. I'm walking toward you, hang up and ignore me." Dee looked back to Linc. He was already walking in her direction.
Dee hung up the phone. She could see Tom get out of the car, but shook her head – stay there – and he did. Linc continued to a fixed point, to the pay phones themselves, and she stepped around the sandbox of the playground. Linc seemed to ignore the children, cutting directly across.
"If this doesn't work, find her," Linc said. His eyes were pointed away from her but he was definitely talking to her. With Rachel missing, there was no one else.
Two days later and the pair was back on track with the documentary. Dee didn't want to think about what happened, and Tom filled everyone in over IRC.
The video came in from Linc yesterday. "If you're getting this and I'm not standing next to you with a beer in my hand, then I haven't checked into my system and it's going through its automatic upload." "
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Published November 30, 2007