[INT. OXFORD, 105 HILL TOP ROAD]
[TAPE CLICKS ON.]
[A couple of footsteps.]
No shit! Look at this place.
[There’s a sound like a door being closed in the background; it seems like someone, likely Daisy, is checking over the house. The Archivist sighs. As he does:]
When did you say they finished rebuilding?
Doesn’t look like anyone ever moved in, though.
So this is – ten years of cobwebs?
More than that.
(heavy sarcasm) No, I’m sure this is just the normal number of webs that grow up organically.
So – where are all the spiders?
I – I mean, they hide.
You know, it’s a thing they do, spiders; they hide.
Perhaps they bugged out.
[Slight pause, but for footsteps.]
Was that a joke?
John, focus. Are you getting any sense of anything? Can you… See anything?
No, I’m just seeing what you’re seeing. Still a bit weak from my trip up north, to be honest.
(drier than the Sahara) Sorry we couldn’t stop for a snack.
[Basira snickers. The Archivist sighs.]
[Footsteps again, and Daisy hands them all something.]
What even are these?
Magnesium flares. Technically not legal anymore; if you need more, just shout.
Oh. Fine. Uh – and, and – please don’t call me Mel.
What? Since when?
Always. I’m – (sigh) – trying to be more open about this stuff.
Roger wilco, Miss King.
[A door opens.]
These flares going to work?
No idea, but John said the Web doesn’t get on great with fire, and we don’t exactly have a flamethrower, so –
I mean, at least until we find the one Gertrude stocked up.
[Someone shakily exhale-laughs in the background.]
Right next to the nukes.
I’m sure the flares will work fine. (slight pause) I mean, un, unless it’s all an elaborate plan to have us burn this place down again.
So what if it is?
I don’t follow.
I mean, anything we do could be part of the “grand master plan.” So, what – we do nothing? Just sit on our hands and hope that’s not what the Spider wants?
[The Archivist sighs. But it’s Melanie that jumps in:]
Right, sure, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a bit more of a plan, would it?
You want to come back later?
(insistent/explosive) Yes! That’s what I said, isn’t it?
(large sigh) Well, we’re here now. Might as well push on.
(narrowed eyes) Famous last words.
[Another door is opened; Daisy emerges and shuts it behind her.]
Clear. Looks like nothing downstairs.
You wanna – take a moment before we head up?
What about the basement?
Can’t see one.*
[* As a matter of course, music cues tend not to be noted in episode transcripts. However, the cue of high, tremulous violin that comes in the moment Daisy finishes speaking is both surprising and, subsequently, chilling enough that I felt it ought to be mentioned here.]
You want me to take point?
Uh – no. No, I’ve, I’ve got it.
[They all begin to take the stairs; the Archivist’s steps are heavy, and the stairs creak under his weight. As he continues climbing, breaths coming heavy, a strangely familiar voice begins to resolve from the background.]
You hear that?
No, I don’t hear –
(shushes vigorously) Yes! Room on the left.
[The voice resolves completely.]
[It’s the Archivist.]
[His voice is clearly on tape, and it soon becomes clear that the recording playing is that of case #0122204 (MAG #1: “Anglerfish.”)]
[The following excerpt plays, and gains in volume, as the others speak over it:]
– organisation dedicated to academic research into the esoteric and the paranormal. The head of the Institute, Mr. Elias Bouchard, has employed me to replace the previous Head Archivist, one Gertrude Robinson, who has recently passed away.
Is that? –
Don’t touch it.
[He steels himself with a bracing breath, hesitates for a moment, then – turns the tape off.]
Something underneath it.
I see it. Uh – Hand me that brush?
[He begins to retrieve the object.]
Is – that what I think it is?
[He holds the object up; we hear it rustle.]
Official Institute paper and everything.
Statement of Annabelle Cane. She left it for us.
Honestly don’t know what else you guys were expecting.
Well, that’s it, then.
[The Archivist lets out a shaky breath.]
Come on, let’s finish up and get out of here.
I – I mean – Are we burning it?
The statement or the building?
Don’t tempt me.
[The girls all laugh.]
[TAPE CLICKS OFF.]
[INT. OXFORD, 105 HILL TOP ROAD, UPSTAIRS TAPE ROOM.]
[TAPE CLICKS ON.]
Statement of – (sigh) – Annabelle Cane. Regarding her history and her observations of the Magnus Institute, London. Original statement written 20th July, 2018. Audio recording by Jonathan Sims, The Archivist. Statement begins.
Free will is a funny old thing, isn’t it John? Can I call you John? I’m going to call you John.
Such a strange concept, woven from a thousand different ignorances and experiences, a faculty we only ever truly ascribe to ourselves, and – I suppose, to our gods.
With any other animal, we talk about instinct, we talk about training; perhaps, if we have spent enough time with them, we talk about personality. But we never talk about choice. We never look at a dog chasing wildly after a thrown ball and think “What an odd decision that dog has made.”
We talk about workings of its mind, and instincts; if it doesn’t chase the ball, we wonder why: Is it sick, is it tired? Perhaps something in the nature of this particular breed, this particular dog, makes it prone to ignoring a game of fetch.
The idea of a dog simply choosing not to chase feels deeply unnatural. Is it even capable of legitimately making a decision; some would say no.
Of course, people are very different from dogs. Our brains are larger. More complex. So many more little factors and wrinkles to push us and pull us – but does any of that actually constitute free will?
Free of what? We all have forces that drive us, circumstances that direct us, and even if we choose to ignore these and act against all logic, just to prove that we can – is that not simply allowing the existential terror of our own powerlessness to control us instead?
Scans show decisions are made by your brain long before your conscious mind even has a chance to register them. Most of one’s life is simply spent looking back and convincing yourself that you chose deliberately to act like you did.
Hm. Have you ever read War and Peace, John? I know, I know; I had to read an extract for a literature class once, ended up reading the whole thing.
It’s not actually as boring as people say, and its central thesis is that the tiniest, most insignificant factors can control the destiny of the world.
In its post-script, Tolstoy muses on the concept of free will, on whether or not he really believes in it. He ultimately decides that if all the millions upon millions of factors that weigh upon our choices were fully and completely known, then all could be foreseen and predetermined.
But, he argues, it is quite impossible for the human mind to comprehend even a fraction of these. And in that vast, dark space of ignorance lies: free will.
Isn’t that marvelous, John? Free will is simply ignorance. It’s just the name we give to the fact that no one can ever really see everything that controls them.
Of course, that’s not the real crux of the free will question that’s bothering you at the moment, is it? I think that one probably comes down to whether or not you’re choosing to continue reading this statement out loud.
You didn’t mean to, did you? No, I’m sure you told Basira and Melanie that you were going to glance over it and report back; perhaps they asked you if you were going to record, and you shook your head: maybe later.
That sounds like the sort of thing you’d say.
But think about it, John; when’s the last time you were able to read a statement quietly to yourself without instinctively hitting record and speaking it aloud? Is it just instinct, habit? Or is it a compulsion, a string pulled by the Ceaseless Watcher or the Mother of Puppets?
I know the summaries have started to confuse you; where did they come from, when you read a statement fresh? How do you just – know what it’s about, before you even start to read it?
But by then you’re away; the roller coaster is dropping, and you’ve no real choice but to hold on and hope that – I don’t crash you.
I’m afraid I don’t actually have these answers for you; I’ve simply been… watching. I’m sure you understand that.
Maybe I’ve occasionally been nudging something here and there to keep you safe, to keep everything on track. But I know you’ve been more worried about your choices, about whether you’re being controlled by me, or by the Mother.
So I thought perhaps I should leave a little something to reassure you that, yes, your actions and choices have all been your own.
Have they been controlled? No more than gravity controls you when you walk, or hunger controls you when you choose your meal. There are certainly new forces, new instincts and desires, that shape your actions; perhaps you’re unprepared for them.
But if you choose to believe in a free will, then yes: All you have done has been of your own free will. They have all been your choices.
Now, I believe the tradition is to tell you the story of my life, the sinister path that led me to the sorry state in which I now find myself.
Well, let it never be said that I do not dance the steps I am assigned.
I was born into what most would consider a large family. My father worked constantly, and my mother was overwhelmed, leaving some of the older children to watch over the younger ones. Some rose to this responsibility; others deeply resented it and took no pains to hide the fact.
I was one of the youngest, and it soon became clear to my infant mind that in order to get anywhere, the key was to navigate the baroque family politics in which I found myself.
I became very good at it. I would instigate fights between siblings if I needed them in trouble. If I required sympathy, I would bite myself until I drew blood, and then blame it on my sister Lizzie. I discovered a deep and enduring talent inside myself for lying.
My manipulations were not intricate, but they were far beyond what was expected of a child my age, and I have always believed that the key to manipulating people is to ensure that they always under- or over-estimate you. Never reveal your true abilities or plans.
Of course, I learned many of my skills from my mother, who could wield guilt like a rapier and anger like a scalpel. She never simply screamed at you. She was always aware of exactly what kind of fury or disappointment was needed to make sure you regretted ever catching her attention. She had eight children, yet weaved that life around herself in such a way that she always seemed both the victim of it, yet curiously divorced of any responsibility.
In many ways, she was the victim, at least of my father, whose pathological absence spoke of a man who had no interest whatsoever in engaging with the life where he had trapped his family.
However well I had learned my lessons, it was clear that happiness was not something I could have; within that family there was simply too much that I couldn’t control.
My biggest attempt to assert some sort of influence over my family was when I decided to run away. In my childish mind, I was certain that my disappearance would destabilize the entire family unit, allowing me to take my rightful place as the most important child upon my return.
An infantile fantasy, perhaps, but one I was keen to realize. I intended to stay away for two days and two nights. I took a backpack and filled it with as much food as I could carry (which was barely enough for a decent lunch,) my favorite blanket, and the only book I could say belonged to only me: Five Go Down to the Sea. And then I left.
We lived in Hunstanton, in Norfolk, about twenty minutes walk from the beach, and it was late spring, so I wasn’t at all worried about the temperature.
I had chosen where I was to spend the two days I disappeared some weeks before. The air was warm and humid as I snuck out of the house, filled with that slight scent of salt that even now, changed as I am, I sometimes find myself missing here, in the grimy air of London.
If you walked down the short hill from Hunstanton Town Centre and towards the beach, and took a right just before you reached it, you could find yourself on a small stretch of sand that seemed oddly quiet.
Most days, it was completely deserted, and even on those holidays where the number of sunbathers was so high no part of the beach could fully escape them, it would only have a handful of dedicated loungers lying around, quietly reading and studiously ignoring their own unease.
Exactly why it remained like that and no one seemed to notice – still a mystery to me, even now. But whatever the cause, it was a shunned place, and sitting on the side of the road above it, casting a thick, angular shadow, was the squat brick structure of the old chip shop.
I’d never seen it open. No one had, as far as I could tell. It was painted a dark blue, that never quite matched any color of sky that was behind it, and had a hand-lettered sign that could still be seen covering much of the bare left hand wall in curling, faded typeface.
CHIPS, it said.
The old chip shop had been around longer than I’d been alive, probably longer, and its silent one-story silhouette had always unsettled me. It was only looking back that I realized how few windows it had: Just one, tiny panel of glass either side of the big doors. The rest of the structure was just – plain, unadorned brickwork.
I don’t really know why I decided to hide there, but assuming you’ve been paying attention, I’m sure you understand by now how little that means. Perhaps deep down, I simply knew it would be unlocked.
The sun was setting by the time I reached it, and if there had been any tourists trying to enjoy the beach in that place, they were long since gone. I was utterly alone, the only sound a few distant seagulls screaming to be fed as they circled aimlessly looking for food.
Against the vivid red-orange of the sky, the old chip shop seemed almost black, like a fallen obelisk. A light rain began to patter down, and I, not having had the foresight to pack an umbrella, ran to it.
I opened the door as quickly and quietly as I could. Inside it was warm and dry, and dust coated everything. I struggled more than once not to sneeze, something I was convinced would somehow alert my family to where I was. So I crawled under one of the counters, and soon enough, sleep had come for me.
I awoke to the sound of rhythmic clattering, the noise of wood striking wood in a complex, intricate pattern. I got up, more curious than fearful at that moment, and took few, tentative steps towards it.
The sound seemed to be coming from one of the back rooms, and seeing as how light seeped from only one of the doors, it seemed to me pretty obvious which room contained my answer.
So I went inside. Another action which, looking back after the fact, I found myself pleasingly baffled by.
Inside was a young woman I did not recognize, sat at what I would later learn was an old-fashioned wooden loom. Her eyes and face were sunken, her hands and arms a blur as the machine pressed on. They arced over and through the loom, and I could see much of her inner forearms and legs were covered in tiny holes, small red pinpricks like insect bites.
Looking back, of course, and remembering the crunch of used syringes beneath my feet, I realize that addiction is one of the strongest vectors of control there is.
The woman looked up at me, disinterested, and I saw that the threads of the loom were laced into her skin, all through her track marks, and that dozens of spiders ran up and down those weaving threads and scurried in and out of the holes in her skin.
Her eyes met mine, and traveled upwards towards the ceiling. I followed her gaze for barely five seconds before I fled home, and abandoned my plans to run away entirely.
I may have decided not to describe what I saw up there. I will only say that it is what engendered in me that terror of spiders which eventually led to my volunteering at Surrey University!
I will simply say that – when a spider reaches a certain size, it is often not entirely made up of spider anymore.
So how much free will was involved in that story? What could I have chosen to change? Would a different path have been possible?
I felt no loss of control, no puppet strings guided me. And yet, the Mother got exactly the result she no doubt wanted, one that would lead to a fear of spiders so acute that I could later have that horror focused and refined into a silk-spun apotheosis.
Unless, of course, none of it was intentional. None of it was planned. The Mother is the fear of manipulation and lost control made manifest. So perhaps it is our fear that projects her influence on everything that happens.
Like the mind: retrospectively assigning reason to our actions, so we fit whatever occurs into the neatest pattern we can, and declare her web both intricate and complete.
Perhaps she is no more active than Terminus, simply sitting and reveling in the inevitable cascade of paranoia, as those who hold her in special terror cocoon themselves in red string and theory.
Or perhaps I am simply telling you what you need to hear in order to ensure you behave exactly as the Mother wishes you to.
Perhaps I have never even seen a beach.
[A light static turns on in the background.]
Don’t go to Hill Top Road again.
That was, uh… I didn’t – I, I, I didn’t like that. I couldn’t –
[He cuts himself off, seems to struggle, then makes a frustrated noise.]
So. She is watching the Institute. Interfering with things. (slight soft gasp, more of frustration than surprise) Is that reassuring, or merely really bad?
I can’t say I’m… I can’t say I’m sad to have another ally allegedly on our side, but I don’t like the idea of being important to the Web.
That’s a really bad place to be.
Annabelle’s right, though. I mean, I can’t trust anything she says to not be another lie to further manipulate and maneuver us, but deep down I think she’s right.
What I’ve been doing to these people, it – it hasn’t been because I was puppeted, or controlled, or possessed.
I wanted to do it. It felt good.
But at least I know I can stop; I just – don’t know how. I – (he sighs) I don’t – want to stop. (ugh) Goddamn, this one really took it out of me. I need to go lie down. (uh) End recording.