“The Tolling Of Pavlov’s Bells”: An Excerpt From Our Sci-Fi Special Issue
When a virologist and bestselling author's fictional plots start showing up in the real world, a dark side to her life steps out of the shadows.
“The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells” by Seanan McGuire
POINT OF INFECTION +61 DAYS
I suppose there are things one can only learn through experience; the fever is coming on faster than I had expected, making it difficult to organize my thoughts. In the distance, I can hear them ringing, louder than the sirens, louder than the screams. Can you hear them, my daughters?
Can you hear the bells?
POINT OF INFECTION +50 DAYS
They hold my trial in absentia; an empty gesture intended only to placate the screaming public. The growing silence outside the courthouse walls only serves to illustrate the pointlessness of the proceedings. It takes three days to present the evidence: the charts, the lab results, the videos. It would take longer, but after the fourth prosecutor fails to return from recess, the court decides to pass judgment on the case as it stands. There is enough—more than enough—to convict.
Each time the court is called to order, they add the name of every person who succumbed to my daughters between sessions to the charges already against me. More than enough.
I am found guilty of treason, fraud, bioterrorism, and sixteen million counts of murder. The sentence is broadcast over every channel and every radio frequency in the world, in every language someone might be listening for. No one cheers. There would be no point.
They all know that they’ve been beaten.
POINT OF INFECTION -13 DAYS
It’s another meaningless late-night talk show, another opportunity not every author gets, as my agent is only too happy to remind me. “They love you,” she says, in that breathless bedroom tone she uses when she wants to convince me to do something. I’m fairly sure she thinks I’m a lesbian. It doesn’t matter. This exercise takes me away from the lab, but things aren’t at such a crucial juncture that I can’t leave Alan and Jeremy to watch them, and every bit of publicity helps. We must keep the public reading, after all. Isn’t that what every author wants?
The lights are too bright and the leather couch stinks of sweat. I perch as prettily as I can, feeling the pancake makeup crack on my cheeks as I force myself into a rictus of a smile. The host is unfamiliar, but I can’t say whether that’s because he’s new or because I didn’t bother to remember him the first time. He’s nowhere near worth the trouble of committing to memory.
“As a special treat for the intellectuals among us tonight, we’re joined by Dr. Diana Weston, whose latest medical thriller, Symptom, is holding strong at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List.” The smile he flashes at the camera doubtless cost more than most workers will make in a lifetime: a false, artificially white advertisement of genetic superiority. “Thanks for coming on the show, Doc. I’m thrilled that you’re here—see, I’ve been having this pain in my side….”
He trails off as the studio audience erupts into laughter, comic Vesuvius spewing mirth into the air like ash. My smile stiffens a bit more, manicured nails biting into the skin of my palms. I must endure this. I have come so far, worked so hard, and I will not be defeated at the eleventh hour by some buffoon only looking for a cheap laugh.
“I’m not that kind of doctor,” I reply, with as much amusement as I can muster. “But if you have an interesting boil you’d like me to take a poke at—”
This time the laughter is mine to command. My host isn’t pleased. He recoils with exaggerated fright, putting up his hands. “On second thought, Doc, I’m feeling fine. Just fine.”
“If you’re sure,” I say, still smiling.
Even sharks can smile. The host looks genuinely uncomfortable now, but also deeply confused. I am, after all, an attractive woman—I work hard enough to maintain my camouflage—and successful besides. My smile shouldn’t be enough to turn his bowels to ice, and yet it does. His hindbrain recognizes what his thinking mind can’t, and it knows enough to be afraid.
“I’ll let you know if I change my mind,” he says, finally. More chuckles from the audience. “Now, Doc, in Symptom, you’re going back to some themes you’ve visited a time or two before. The horrible virus, the brilliant, attractive CDC doctor—”
Knowing laughter from the studio. They assume I model my heroines on myself, living out my intellectual lust for adventure in the safe confines of the story. They’ll learn the truth soon enough. Soon enough.
“—and of course, the sexy federal agent who’s standing by to help her when it seems like modern medicine will fail. Do you feel like you’re running out of stories?”
“Not at all.” For the first time, my smile is sincere. That doesn’t seem to ease his nerves. “My readers know what they like, and what they like is the triumph of individuals over seemingly impossible odds. At the same time, I truly believe that most spectacular advances in medical science have been made outside the strict confinement of the lab, outside the boundaries of protocol. We learn by getting right out in the heart of things and letting ourselves truly experience the threats around us.”
“I understand you’ve received some criticism from the medical community over your portrayal of quarantine procedures. Why do you think that is?”
Careful, careful; this is the baited hook, and I’m too close to the finish to let myself be caught. I lean back into the couch, shake my head, and say, “Quarantine is important—we’ve known that since the Middle Ages—but it’s a scalpel, not a hammer. No one should suffer alone.”
“But doesn’t suffering alone mean that your loved ones will live?”
I give him a pitying look. “Would your loved ones give up on you that easily?”
He nods and moves on, answer accepted. More senseless questions, more pre-programmed banter. I laugh, smile, play the part he scripts for me, and let my thoughts drift to the lab, where even now Alan is watching the cultures, checking the settings on the incubators, feeding the test subjects. My beautiful daughters are growing up.
This show will be canceled soon…along with all the others.