Episode 1: Population Zero Transcript

I discovered the secret town of Ostium by playing GeoGuessr. It’s an online game using Google Maps that drops you somewhere in the world. You navigate around, go up and down the street, look at cars and signs and buildings, and try to guess where you are. Then you’re told how far your guess is from where you actually are, and you’re awarded points on that distance. It’s one of those games that’s real simple and the first time you play it, you think: It’s nothing special. I’ll play it once, then I’ll get bored and that’ll be it. Then . . . two hours later, you’re working on your 50th game, because this time you’re sure you’re going to be able to guess, or geoguess within less than 50 miles.  What’s worse is you’re probably at work and you just wasted a lot of company time, and here comes your boss to check on those reports you were supposed to have ready for him an hour ago . . .

Sorry, got carried away there a little. I need to stay on topic. It’s just, this is sort of my first time doing this sort of audio journal type thing and I don’t know exactly what I want to say yet, or how I want to say it . . . I’m still processing everything that’s happened.

That’s what I need to focus on.

What I found.

Ostium. 

So I was playing GeoGuessr for like the billionth time. I know, I’m addicted, but as far as addictions go, this is a pretty harmless one . . .

I guess I should introduce myself too.

My name’s Jake Fisher. I’m a software engineer for a video game company in San Francisco which will remain nameless, and because I don’t want to live in a studio the size of a cardboard box, my home is in the great city of Oakland which I truly love, though I am a Giants fan.

Okay, that’s all I’m going to say about me . . . for now.

Ostium.

I didn’t discover that name until I found the hidden town. But that one and only time I saw it on GeoGuessr I was completely entranced. So much so I haven’t played the game since . . . because I’ve been on my own quest, and I’m not talking about the kind you play on a screen.

[Music Break]

Like just about every game of GeoGuessr, this particular one began with a road. It started as a normal piece of asphalt highway: two lanes with a divider strip down the middle. Not a car in sight from either direction. And since I usually use license plates as clues to guess where I am, I knew this was going to be a hard one. I didn’t know which way to go, so I chose north according to the compass, and kept going for about four minutes. I usually give myself half that time before I give up and decide to make a guess, but something made me keep going. I don’t know what. I just kept clicking the arrow button, and the screen kept refreshing me a little further north.

Then the road changed.

The color of the surface began to get lighter, going from dark black to a lighter black, then through a series of shades of gray, getting lighter and lighter as I continued clicking with the mouse, which I attribute to disuse. It started curving in a northeasterly direction, and I dutifully followed it, my interest piqued.

The foliage on either side of the road had remained a lush and healthy green, but, like the road, was also changing, though not in such an obvious way. It was still that vibrant, alive green of growth and vitality, but it became more dense, crowding the edges of the image until it seemed to form a solid wall on either side, like the walls of the thick hedge maze in the Yerba Buena Gardens.

A feeling of claustrophobia stole over me.

I know. It sounds weird to say something like that; since I’m talking about staring at a screen in a crowded workplace, but trust me, being the one actually saying it, it really sounds weird.

But it’s also the absolute truth.

Even though I was just messing around on my computer at work, I felt a compressing chill enveloping me, as if I was physically walking along that alien gray road, trapped and alone, forced to continue in the same direction because of the encroaching walls of greenery.

I reminded myself I was safe and sound in my cubicle, ignoring my growing, unfinished work, even though I felt completely spellbound by that foreign road.

In the warm office environment of my cubicle I shivered in fear.

I stopped myself. Looked away from the screen for a second, stared at the side of my cubicle, where I’d pinned lots of pointless ephemera over the years: drawings, statements, cartoons that meant nothing to someone just looking at it en masse, but told me a complete collection of memories.

That did it. My mind cleared, my fear abated, and I felt myself flush with embarrassment.

It didn’t last long.

I turned back to the screen and watched the road now transform from asphalt to gravel. Wherever this was, it had just run out of state funds.  The direction kept changing too, curling towards the south and even towards the southwest at one point, and then back up to the north, then east, then northeast again.

I’d now been playing this game of GeoGuessr for over seven minutes. Not only that, I was still on this one road without having guessed the location and confirmed where I was yet. I was sorely tempted to just click and pick somewhere in the middle of the US and find out exactly where I was, but another part of me – the one that was in charge – said no, said to keep going, the end would be worth it.

So I did. I kept clicking, even though the pad on my index finger was starting to hurt.

And that’s when I saw the sign.

I’d clicked by it, whooshing with the speed of the next loading image, before I realized I’d seen something. Everything had looked the same for so long, and then all of a sudden there had been that snapshot of white against the green.

The beauty of GeoGuessr is you can always go back.

I turned around and went back, then turned the image around again to face the sign I’d missed.

When I saw it, I just stared at it; confused, but also growing curious with wonder.

It was your ordinary sign for a town: green with a white border; a solid rectangle that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else.

On it was beveled the name of this particular town.

OSTIUM.

O-S-T-I-U-M.

No clue what that means, but it was definitely an interesting name.

Below the name of the town was the elevation and the population.

Elevation was 282 feet.

Population was . . . zero.

Yep, that’s right.

Population nobody.

It said it right there on the sign: P-O-P. Period. And then the number zero.

[Music Break]

Firstly, if a town really had no population, why would it be listed on the sign? What would be the point of it?

Secondly, what the hell?

I knew I had to keep going and kept clicking.

It didn’t take me long: less than half a mile and a couple handfuls of clicks, I reached the edge of the town.

I knew that because I could see that the gravel road had ended.

I knew that because the dense green bushes and trees on each side of the road suddenly ended.

I knew that because I could see the ten-foot high stone wall spreading out in opposite directions from the dead end of the road, which I assumed surrounded the entire town, like some medieval fortified village.

 I could see the road ended at a big rusty iron gate that had to be at least ten feet high. It was pretty plain, no fancy ironwork or ornate curlicues, just a regular iron gate that had seen its share of heavy weather and was now a ruddy golden-brown rust color. It also looked firmly locked, and I couldn’t really see anything on the other side.

By this point my fear seemed like a hazy memory that I wasn’t even sure I’d felt, but my curiosity was making me shake with excitement. I could feel hot sweat on my brow, as well as a heat in my armpits and crotch.

Maybe a little TMI there. But I want you to experience this as close to how I experienced it.

I needed to find where this place was.

I wanted to go there.

I wanted to see this Ostium.

And I knew the moment had finally arrived.

I turned to the world map on the right of the screen, zoomed in on the US and contemplated on where to place the digital push-pin.

I settled on the middle of North Dakota. It seemed remote and unusual enough for this undiscovered town of population zero.

The game did its thinking and calculated me to be 1545 miles away and the formerly unknown town of Ostium was in fact located in Northern California.

It took me way too long to realize I was in Northern California.

It was a clear strong thought, like a shot of tequila: I had to find this town and see exactly where this was.

I studied the map, trying to see if I could zoom in on it and get a definitive location.

And that was when GeoGuessr did something it has never done before.

The image grew blurry, as if there was some sort of interference, then the screen cleared and a message popped up:

GOOGLE MAPS GPS ERROR.

LOCATION HAS BEEN LOST.

The words were so definite and final. They said that Ostium was gone. Gone from GeoGuessr, and gone from my screen.

Fortunately, I’ve always had a good memory. A very good memory. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s photographic. So it was easy to bring that map up once more, on the screen in my mind, to zoom in on where it showed the push-pin pinpointing Ostium. I saw it in my head and calculated the distance. It would take two to three hours to get to that approximate area, and then I’d have to start looking for that road, wait for it to change, then look for that sign, and finally reach that rusty iron gate.

I stood up suddenly, feeling a cramping in my legs. I’d been locked in the same, tense position for too long.

I looked at the time: 11:22. Perfect. It wasn’t too late.

I thought for a whole long second about telling . . . Robert in the next cubicle that I was leaving and for him to cover for me, if he could, but then thought to hell with it.

That driving excitement was still in the center of my chest, blossoming and taking over.

I had to get on the road.

I had to find Ostium.

I think Robert might’ve seen me walk past his cubicle, head straight for the doors, then out to the elevator.

It was taking too long, so I hit the stairwell and sprinted down twelve flights of stairs.

It was thrilling. I was too excited to feel tired from it.

I made it to my Volkswagen Mini with my heart racing. I’d hit the McDonald’s on the way out and load up on grease, carbs and a heavy dose of caffeine. I had a long drive ahead of me, but when I eventually found Ostium – and I was fully confident I would – it would be well worth it.

[Music Break]

It didn’t take me long to realize Ostium didn’t want to be found.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

It took me over four hours to get into the approximate zone of that part of Northern California that I remembered from the GeoGuessr map. It was a long drive, but I had my trusty iPhone to keep me musically entertained with The Beatles. The Beatles can get me through anything. Siri also guided me. I’d picked a town I’d given as an end point that was in the rough vicinity of where I thought Ostium was. I had of course tried asking Siri to guide me to Ostium first, but she’d said: “I’m sorry Jake, I’m not sure where that is.”

A couple food and drink stops along the way had recharged me. It was while I was waiting for my venti white mocha with an extra shot that I decided to look up what Ostium actually meant.

An ostium is defined as a small opening or orifice. According to Merriam Webster, the etymology of the word is from the Latin, meaning door or mouth of a river.

Interesting.

Next I tried some websites. Ostium.com gave me nothing. Ostium.net ominously told me: “Nothing to see. Move along . . .” Ostium.co.uk seemed to be about to load a site, but then just stayed a white screen. And on a hunch, playing the Latin angle, I tried Ostium.it for Italy and was taken to an Italian legal firm named Mannucci.

So one big zilcho. Fortunately, that’s when I heard my name called out. Then it was back to the freeway and the long road north.

I made my last stop at the town I’d told Siri to take me to, grabbing a bottle of water this time to give my over-stimulated head and brain a break. I was kind of at a standstill, a “roadblock” if you will.

Sorry, that was uncalled for.

I simply wasn’t sure where to head next; whichever way I went could be the right direction, or completely wrong one.

I pulled up a map of the area on my phone and tried zooming out a bit to get a feel for the area and see if I could hone in on where I thought Ostium might be, but no such luck. It all felt foreign and alien to me, much like it’d felt when I saw that rusty gate and that strange sign on the screen.

Back at my cubicle.

Which seemed like a million miles away at this point.

And now for something completely different.

I tossed my phone and water onto the passenger seat then stepped in front of my car, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and turned in a complete circle, fast. Got myself pretty dizzy. Then I did it much slower. I was waiting for . . . I don’t know what, a sound, some indicator, something.

And I got it.

It was a feeling, like someone had just put the slightest pressure on my temples with their fingertips. Just for a moment, an external force.

I felt that shivering fear come back, but I was ignoring it for the time being.

I opened my eyes to a house across the street. The house didn’t mean anything, but I now had some extrasensory feeling that this was the direction I needed to go.

I got back in my car, had another swig of icy water, and pulled the map up again on my phone, calculating the route from freeway to smaller roads that would take me in that specific direction.

I left the town, getting on the on ramp, wondering if whatever force I’d experienced could in fact be Ostium pulling me in some way towards it, perhaps calling to me.

I know, sounds crazy, but . . .

[Music Break]

The shiver was still there, cold and small, wrapped around my spine like a frozen coil of barbed wire, waiting to make itself known.

I followed my chosen route and before I knew it there were no more cars on the road. I didn’t know how long it’d been since I’d seen the last vehicle, but it left me with a pretty eerie feeling. And that was when I noticed the road.

It was that same road from the GeoGuessr map.

I know. From how I’d described it before, it sounds like any road on the planet, but I had that feeling inside me letting me know, telling me that this was the right road.

I slowed down to 45, wanting to take it slow so I didn’t miss anything.

I watched the greenery on both sides grow denser and thicker, just like it had on the monitor. Then I got that tunnel vision for real this time, seeing the wall of green to the left and right of me and just that narrow two-lane road reaching ahead.

And then I saw the sign.

It stood there to the side of the road, harmless and unimportant, but meaning so much to me.

I stopped the car, not bothering to pull over as there was no traffic coming in either direction. There also wasn’t really any room to pull over.

I got out and walked up to the sign, touching each of the letters of Ostium, then the zero next to POP. It was real alright. I took a photo with my phone just to make sure. Just in case this all turned out to be some weird hallucination. At the end of this strange trip, I would at least have that photo to confirm or deny what I’d seen.

I checked the map again, this time confirming to memory where exactly I was. Then I got back in the car and started driving again.

I got to Ostium quicker than I expected. The wall, the gates. Ostium stood before me. I got out of my car and stared in wonder. It hit me then, like a strong gust of wind: everything I’d done today from playing the game, seeing this place on the screen, then making the long journey up here and actually finding it.

It was incredible.

It was thrilling.

And also a little bit scary.

Because it was real. And the rust on the gate had been there for years. A lot of years. It seemed like a gate this old and rusted would be easy to open, the lock long broken.

When I got to the gate I reached out, touching a rusty bar, feeling it cold and biting on my skin, then I pushed. It didn’t budge; there was no movement at all in fact. I looked to where the two sides of the gate met and saw a strange, small padlock in place there. It wasn’t your usual padlock. This one was a unique style and shape; a type of lock I was pretty sure I’d never seen before.

It also looked shiny and new. Brand new. Like it could’ve been put there just hours ago.

Which was impossible.

Wasn’t it?

That shiver was coursing through me now, even though there wasn’t a breath of wind.

The small padlock locked each side of the gate in place so that there would be very little movement. I tried lifting the end of the lock where the key would be inserted and then pushed on one of the iron bars again, and this time there was a little give.

I wasn’t getting past this gate, not today at least. I’d have to come back with a heavy-duty bolt cutter.

Which I fully intended to do.

Perhaps there was a tiny voice inside of me saying no; that I’d already gone too far. That I needed to turn back and leave now.

I ignored it, convinced myself it wasn’t even really there.

I’d come back tomorrow, break that lock and take my first step into Ostium.

For now, I had to make do with what I could see.

I put my face between the bars of the gate.

The first thing I noticed was a water tower in the far distance with OSTIUM printed on the side. I’m pretty sure I smirked at it. I could also see there was a ladder leading up to it from the ground, and stopping at what seemed to be a little door. Weird.

I then focused on the town proper, staring down what was probably Main Street framed by buildings leading to a small square and a large building that was likely a town hall with a clock high up on it. It listed the time as noon, or midnight.

I wondered how long ago that clock had stopped working.

I could see the façades of some of the stores along the main street, but they were all clear and plain, telling me nothing of what goods or items they held within. However, each possessed a dominant doorway. I know that’s a strange way of putting it, but that’s how it felt to me, in my head. As if the store were the body and the door a strong, domineering face. Commanding.

There was neither a person nor soul in sight anywhere. I thought about calling out, but knew it would be futile. There wasn’t anyone here. Not anymore, at least. The sign had said so. But those powerful doorways gave me a strange feeling, as if there were . . . presences here , staring at me. Ghosts in those doorways, of lives that had once lived, of the people that had once inhabited Ostium.

Whether I would ever be meeting any of them, I would discover in time.

[Music Break]

 I turned around, got back in my car and drove home, and when I got settled I recorded this experience.

It’s now three in the morning and I’m very tired; I need to sleep. When I wake in the morning I’ll prepare myself, bring those bolt cutters and return to that town and that gate. I will get it open and find out just what this strange place called Ostium is all about and why it called to me.

Because I now know this to be true, as true as knowing real estate in San Francisco is ridiculous and it may be a long time before the Giants win a World Series again. And that my cooking sucks.

Tomorrow I will go through one of those doors, one of those faces of Ostium, and find out what the hell is going on in that strange town.

Now, I need to end this recording and try to stop myself shivering.

Until tomorrow then.

[End Credit Music]

Advertisements