It all started, of all places, on a dream forum. The one place even a corporate tech giant didn’t bother to monitor, I guess. Nowadays, the forum’s closed, and most of the community are gone or dead.
It was one of several such places I frequented after I started having The Nightmare. Places for people to talk about dreams. Often just to share and compare. Some people tried to analyse each other’s. One guy said he was a highly qualified psychologist and could use them to deduce how your subconscious was doing. A few people thought they could tell the future, like horoscopes. There was this one lady who always turned up sooner or later any time two or more people mentioned having the same dream, or dreams that were suspiciously similar. She went by Minerva, and her theory was that dreams were the result of, like, memories being processed or something. Whenever multiple people had the same dream, Minerva tried to work out what they shared. What parts of their lives were similar enough to have produced identical results when processed?
That forum wasn’t the best of the ones I frequented, but it was the one where I got the most useful response when I brought up The Nightmare. I’d had The Nightmare on and off at random intervals for over a year by that point, usually when I was sick or stressed. Every other place I’d brought it up never found much to talk about. It was always a difficult one to describe because… there wasn’t really anything to it.
In The Nightmare, I’m somewhere dark, and cold. I can’t see anything, or feel anything. I can’t even feel myself – it’s like I don’t have a body. And for some reason, I’m afraid. I’m not sure why I’m afraid, but it’s overpowering and it’s awful. I feel like I’m trying to reach out for something, anything, but I can’t because I have nothing to reach out with. And I don’t know how I know, but I know there’s someone or something there, just out of reach, and I’m trying to call out to it, but I don’t have a voice. And somehow I can tell that there are other things around me in the same kind of state that I’m in, too. They’re stuck, and they’re panicky, and I’m trapped with them and they’re trapped with me.
Most places I mentioned it, there’d be one or two comments of how unpleasant the whole thing sounded, and then no further conversation. But on this one forum, someone gave me the reply that kicked everything off. ‘Dude,’ they wrote; a lady called StrangerInSeattle. ‘I’ve had that exact nightmare dozens of times since the mid 90s’.
Minerva, of course, joined the conversation before I could respond myself. She began to quiz us, about where we’d lived, and what we’d worked as, and how old we’d been when The Nightmares started.
Minerva didn’t always find the connections she was looking for, much to her own dissatisfaction. But with this one, she found it easily, in the course of less than ten comments.
It turned out, we’d both started having The Nightmare while living in one particular area. Working in one particular building.
We’d both experienced one particular phone glitch.
I’d spent the better part of my twenties working in a call centre run by an office owned by a company that was ultimately part of one of the tech giants. I’d like to say which one, but I won’t, and it wouldn’t do any good if I did. Of the last three people I know who tried to blow the whistle on these guys, one wound up dead, one’s now in jail, and the third last anyone heard of him was a heroin addict sleeping rough under a bridge every night.
The thing about big companies is that, compared to them, we’re tiny, like ants. We got ants in the office once, and even though none of us had anything specific against them we didn’t think twice about calling an exterminator. Even if you’re trying to care about the lives of ants, it’s always so easy to destroy them as soon as they start bothering you – and when you are an enormous tech giant, they you have no real reason to even try caring about anything outwith your profits. You have the best lawyers, the best muckrakers and the best fixers, and it only ever takes one memo from the PR department to have someone crushed like an ant, as soon as it becomes the best move for the company.
I knew all of that when I worked for them, obviously, but a job’s a job. Heck, I was one of the people who couldn’t not know it; part of my job was keeping up-to-date with the PR policies. They had me on the Customer Service team, and then on General Complaints, which apparently is a meaningfully different thing to some people. Both of them, ultimately, involved sitting in a big room with a hundred other people, packed as tightly as optimum profit required, and taking phone calls from people who were angry at the consequences of one or more decisions by one or more of the colleagues of one of your boss’s boss’s bosses.
Seattle, meanwhile, had apparently been a receptionist for the same office on the same site – its official name was a forgettable alphanumerical designation; let’s call it TX2 – before it had even been a call centre. Back then Site TX2 had still been owned by the same tech giant, but they’d been using it for shipping admin or something. Back then, on the rare occasion that someone wanted to complain to Seattle’s bosses about anything other than a specific problem with the shipping admin, the person who took the call was usually just her.
Both of us, at some point shortly before we first had The Nightmare, had received a glitched call that unsettled us.
Glitched calls happened a lot. Big systems of complex phone lines just sort of do that, I suppose. It wasn’t especially commonplace in my experience, but it was commonplace enough not to worry about. Sometimes calls were mute, and you just couldn’t hear anything. Sometimes they were so quiet or crackly that you couldn’t make out what was being said. Sometimes they cut off unexpectedly. But Seattle and I had both experienced one that was different in a way we couldn’t quite describe. Calls that were silent but… not in a way we could be sure of. Calls where maybe there was something there – something indistinct like hundreds of whispers a long way off – but so faint that maybe we were imagining it.
Calls we only remembered because they left us shaken, without being able to express why. Neither of us had ever told anyone before, because who the hell admits to being scared by a dodgy phoneline?
We probably still could have chalked the whole thing up to a bunch of odd coincidences, and maybe we should have. But maybe Minerva was rubbing off on us. We didn’t. We kept looking. Seattle knew how to get in touch with other people who’d worked in the same building. I still had a lot of my own old colleagues on social media. Both of us knew other communities who were interested in dreams. And we had the help of Minerva who, whatever else she might have been, was actually pretty good at investigating things and spotting the right questions to ask.
Asking people odd and inappropriate questions like ‘have you by any chance had a recurring nightmare?’ isn’t actually so hard when you’ve spent years of your life dealing with customer complaints over the phone until your sense of social propriety went numb.
It turned out there were dozens of us. Always the same site, always the same nightmare, always the same phone call. The building had been renovated over the years; it had changed the phone systems; it had changed pretty-much everything. But something about Site TX2 seemed to produce those glitched phone calls, and something about those glitched phone calls seemed to trigger The Nightmare.
We started researching the site as best we could. We got in touch with a couple of people who still worked there and we looked up all the records we could find of its history. Seattle knew a guy who knew a guy who worked on one of its renovations, and all together we started mapping it at every point in its history we could.
The building was surprisingly old, but had been repurposed several times in the last few decades. It was converted into a call centre in the early 2000s, before which it had been a transport office. Before that, it had been used as a warehouse for a while in the 80s, following a period of reconstruction after a fire in 1977. Before the fire, it had been a Research and Development Centre ever since its construction in the early 50s. Interestingly, it seemed that the building itself had never been sold. The military hardware manufacturer who owned it in the 50s had merged with a different group to form a multipurpose tech company in the 70s, which had then been bought wholesale by a rival not long after the fire, which later rebranded and was in turn incorporated into the current tech giant when the internet really took off and changed the playing field of the tech industry for everyone.
The sheer amount of name-changing and swapping-around this one site had undergone made our amateur investigation difficult, and more than one of us theorised that maybe that was all on purpose. It didn’t help, though, that none of us knew what we were looking for. We didn’t know if we were investigating a brain-scrambling electrical signal or a weak spot in the fabric of reality or a botched magical experiment, to reference just three of the many suggestions people came up with to explain The Nightmare.
It ended up being the renovation worker Seattle got in touch with who pointed us in the right direction. He said his team had been given some very strange instructions when they were converting Site TX2 from warehouse to transport office. Things they weren’t allowed to change or question. Places they weren’t allowed to dig or drill. When upgrading the wiring, they’d had to redirect certain cables in awfully strange routes. And on at least one occasion, they’d uncovered a vent in the ground that had seemingly been filled in a long time before. It was like the current form of the site, he said, was built on top of the bones of a much bigger structure that had extended underground, quite possibly very deep.
Actually, he said it was like the current form of the site was hiding the bones of the bigger, underground one. And his team had been brought in to carefully hide them further without uncovering too much.
The part of TX2’s history when it was doing R&D for the military during the Cold War was, predictably, the hardest part to find records for. We didn’t know what exactly it had been back then, or what exactly had been done down there. But of course, everyone’s mind went to the same place, once it came out that it had maybe been a giant underground facility. People had been building a lot of weird, paranoid stuff during the Cold War. Bomb shelters and secret labs and secure facilities and so on. Giant Secret Fortified Underground Military Tech Lab wasn’t even especially farfetched, and it certainly seemed like something that could have interfered with the operation of telephones in some way. It was a bit of a shot in the dark, but it was better than any other lead we had.
We only knew we were on the right track when the tech giant noticed us. Some of the guys who still worked at Site TX2 at the time had started poking around the area, looking for evidence of the renovation guy’s hidden vents or anywhere that might be hiding a Cold War Era door to an underground vault, and suddenly all of them were fired. The renovation guy cut off all contact suddenly and none of us heard from him again – we still don’t know if he was paid off or threatened or what. The dream forum we had originally used as a gathering place shut down out of the blue. Several of us received letters – not legally binding Cease and Desist orders, not yet, but polite notices that the tech giant would have to take decisive action if we continued to engage in activities they classified as Corporate Espionage. It would become the best move for the company.
And a few of us swore they were being watched. Followed. Monitored by people who felt powerful enough to let themselves be seen now and then, as a warning.
Obviously, most of the people involved backed off at that point. One or two tried to call the tech giant’s bluff and go to the press with the little we had so far, but, well, I think I mentioned earlier what inevitably happens to people who try to blow the whistle on this particular corporation. Seattle stopped responding to messages around the same time, and we later found out she’d been killed in a car accident. Maybe that one was just a coincidence, to be fair, but either way it rattled us.
After that I gave up, and I’d thought everyone else had too. The Nightmare was nasty, but it only happened every so often, and it wasn’t worth directly fighting a megacorporation over.
But then a few months later I got an email forwarded to me from Minerva. I guess she must have been continuing the investigation on her own. She always did seem generally more driven and curious than I was, and I suppose maybe the tech giant had a harder time tracking down someone who hadn’t actually worked for them. The email was from someone claiming that in the 70s he had been an executive of the company that was later bought by the company that later became part of the current tech giant. Part of the deal behind the handover, he claimed, had been that the new, rebranded company would reconstruct Site TX2 after the fire of ‘77, in the process covering up certain details of the building and certain circumstances of the fire, and everyone involved would agree never to tell the full story. He was only breaking that agreement now, he said, because he was ninety-one years old and dying from lung cancer with no family left to leave his legacy to, so he literally had nothing left to lose. Even then, he wouldn’t actually give us his name, or anything to back up the supposed truth of his outrageous story.
‘I can’t give you justice,’ he said in the email, ‘and I can’t give you evidence. But I can give you answers.’
I don’t believe him about the evidence, incidentally. I’m quite sure he could have proven his story if he had wanted to. And I’m not sure I believe him about the justice, if only because – if his story is true – we wouldn’t be the ones he ought to give it to. But, given everything, I’m inclined to believe him about the answers.
TX2, so he claimed, had indeed been constructed initially as a fortified underground testing lab for top-secret weapons. Apparently there were quite a few of these constructed, in secret, around the First World. Nobody wanted to risk being on the wrong end of a technology gap with the Soviets.
What surprised me was that the secret weapons tech wasn’t actually important to the story. Nothing they’d had a hand in making at that site had ever gotten properly produced or used. They made a few technical breakthroughs that allowed the company to make other weapons better at other sites, but in the grand scheme of Things People Were Hiding During The Cold War, everything at TX2 was barely a footnote.
Maybe that was why they went through the merger. They spent all that money on this giant, hidden, fortified underground research facility and never really saw the returns from it. They were relying on military sponsorship to keep turning a profit, and without major results the military eventually lost interest. They needed to switch to a different track to recoup their losses.
So then the 70s started to roll around, and the merger, and there was this big tech company who owned a research facility that was mostly hidden underground, which nobody else knew about. Naturally, they found the quickest, most effective way to make a profit out of one of their facilities being concealed from the eyes of inspectors. They took the best move for the company.
They filled the hidden part of TX2 with underpaid, undocumented workers. Packed as tightly as optimum profit required. TX2 happens to be pretty near a border, so they didn’t have too much trouble finding enough people with enough desperation.
And for a few years, it worked. Cheap labour and no need to adhere to standard regulations sparked a lot of profit.
And then, it sparked a fire.
Turns out, when a facility never gets inspected, and the management never feel the need to stick to safety codes, and you’ve got a hundred or more tired, hungry workers who don’t all speak great English making and testing electronics in a confined space, it’s only a matter of time before something burns down.
The fire spread through the underground portion of TX2 and reached the more modest above-ground section that the world actually knew about. They had to evacuate.
The executives knew this would be the end. They were ruined. As soon as they were seen evacuating far more people than were officially supposed to be working in that building, questions would be asked. People would poke around. Someone would find the secret underground facility, and the company would never recover its reputation.
So they did what they all agreed was the best move for the company.
They chose not to evacuate. Locked the doors. Sealed off the secret part of the site. Turned off all the systems that provided it with electricity and air. Evacuated the above-ground part specifically and pretended that was all there was.
The fire burnt itself out, and the company used the following reconstruction as a cover to fill in every vent and entrance to the underground area with concrete and cover them all back up as if they had never been there. It lost money in the process, and it took a hit on the stock market, and eventually it had to sell out to a rival to keep itself sufficiently in the black to keep the cover-up going. But the company survived with its reputation intact, and the executives all eventually took comfortable retirements, and over time and multiple refurbishments it became gradually easier to prevent anyone from ever uncovering the truth.
The truth, in this case, being a hundred or more people. Trapped in the dark. Temperature rising. Oxygen thinning. Searching frantically for doors that won’t open anyway. Packed as tightly as optimum profit required.
It was the best move for the company. Like crushing a few ants.
I never replied to that email Minerva forwarded me. How does anyone reply to that? I spent most of the next few days taking a series of long, fidgety walks.
I heard from Minerva exactly once more, a few weeks afterwards. She sent me a link to an obituary, with no additional context. It was the obituary of a 91-year-old man, dead from late-stage lung cancer with no surviving relatives. He’d spent his entire life in the tech industry, and one of the foremost tech giants of the modern age had recognised him in an official statement released on his death as ultimately instrumental in their own success. I’m sure I needn’t mention which one it was.
He’d died in a fancy house on the west coast of Australia, about as far from TX2 as a person could reasonably get.
I tried replying to that email, but I got no response. When I tried again, the email failed to send. Apparently Minerva’s account didn’t exist anymore. She’d disappeared from social media too, and none of our former mutuals could or would help me track her down.
I had The Nightmare again last night. Since I woke up, all I’ve been able to think about is the image of a hundred or more terrified ghosts, lost in darkness under the ground. Packed as tightly as optimum profit required.
I don’t know if I even believe in ghosts, even now. But… I can believe that maybe when something awful enough happens to enough people all at once in one place, maybe it leaves some kind of mark. Maybe something lingers.
A lot of things can interfere with phone calls. Weather. Electronics. EM radiation. Maybe, if there was something left down there, messing with the phones could be its easiest way of communicating.
Or maybe something or someone just worked out that people like StrangerInSeattle, and later people like me and my colleagues, are who you’re supposed to call when you have a complaint to make about the company.
Although mirrored in several locations, this article was originally posted on an independent blogging site on 29/06/2019 and retracted less than 12 hours later. The site is no longer in operation, and despite multiple attempts the original author could not be identified or reached for comment.
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