The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells19 min read


Seanan McGuire
Resize text-+=
Death or dying, Pandemic, Terrorism/Bio-terrorism


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?


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.


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.


“Are you sure?” asks Alan, breathless with excitement. He’s standing too close, his shoulder almost brushing mine, but I’ll allow it, just this once. This is a moment too momentous to be spoiled by something as small as his inability to respect my personal space. “Is it ready?”

“The results speak for themselves. Our kill rate is up to ninety-seven percent in a population with a high immunity, and as close to one hundred percent as our tests can measure in a non-immune population.” I smile at the figures on the screen, my oldest daughter’s fingerprints transcribed in elegant, inarguable truth. “We’re ready.”

“That’s … Dr. Weston, that’s incredible.” Light flashes off his glasses as he turns to me, earnest fanaticism written plain across his face. “What happens now?”

“Now we enter the final phase.” I turn my smile on him. This close to the finish, I don’t have to worry about leading him on. Things are coming to their natural conclusion. “Call Xiang and Jeremy. Tell them we’re ready to begin dispersion.”

“What will you be doing?”

Untrusting little assistant, worried that he’ll miss the glories yet to come. He shouldn’t be. No one will miss the fires ahead of us, when my daughters burn across the world like the phoenix of myth made sweet reality. When the world realizes at last that they’ve been listening, all this time, to the tolling of distant bells.

I touch his cheek, watching his eyes widen in surprise. “Why, I’ll be getting ready for my book tour, of course. Now hurry. There’s work left to do.”


They started handing out tickets to this event two days ago, an army of publicists and interns doing their best to control the crowd. I take no pride in their number, only a quiet satisfaction at a job well done. My authorial career has been the most difficult research project I have ever undertaken, and I have acquitted myself more than decently. This moment is the proof of that, eight hundred people eager for the chance to breathe my air and shake my hand, skin contacting skin.

Has there ever been a race more eager for its own extinction than mankind?

The vaccines are untested in the field on human subjects, but they have been reasonably successful in monkeys, in dogs … in the lab. Even if they fail me, they should buy a few weeks of time to cloud the issue. That, coupled with the latency we tailored in so carefully—sixteen days from exposure to first symptoms, ten of those days spent in an infectious state—should muddy the waters further, buy a little more time for the latter stages of dispersion. The injections will be sufficient, or they won’t. There’s no point in worrying about it now.

Empty perfume bottles are easy things to buy, and carry no suspicion. The bottle I produce from my bag is full now, and smells, ever-so-faintly, of fresh linen and lilacs. I spray the contents in a fine mist over my wrists and at the hollow of my throat, my oldest daughter kissing me sweetly before I take her, for the first time, out into the world. The human race is over at the first breath she takes in the open air.

There is no turning back now.


Jeremy is dead, shitting out his intestines in a tenement in downtown Berlin. His last email was barely coherent, filled with typos and sentences that went nowhere. He made it further than I thought he would, carrying my second daughter all the way from California to New York, and from there to New Zealand, England, Europe. I hope he died proud of what he’d done, and that he had no final regrets. I watch the news feeds for hours, monitor the CDC alerts, but see nothing to indicate that anyone has noticed his travels, or that his death has made any mark upon the world.

Even now, the bacteria he carried in his bloodstream and on his skin are working their way into the world’s water supply, spreading, multiplying, becoming present in ever greater numbers. By my calculations, the first “cholera” outbreaks should begin in eleven days, four days after my oldest daughter has made her presence known.

Jeremy is our first martyr, and our first sacrifice. The bells are ringing louder all the time.

I have never been more proud.


My little girl is swifter and stronger than I had ever dreamed she’d be. People are dying already, the weak, the homeless, the elderly and the young. Doctors are baffled, and the seeds I spent so many years sowing are beginning to bear their bitter fruit. “Smallpox is dead,” the doctors say, and because they’ve convinced themselves that’s so, they believe it. They keep looking for another answer.

They won’t find it.

Patient zero has been identified. A middle-aged male in South Dakota checked himself into the hospital at three o’clock this afternoon, presenting a set of symptoms as frightening as they are perplexing. Headache, fever, backache—all symptoms of common flu. So many things can masquerade as flu … but this flu is followed by subcutaneous blistering, leading to hemorrhaging of skin, eyes, tongue, intestines. The large blisters will begin forming soon. They’ll start on his hands, feet, and belly, spreading to his throat and tongue. By that point, some cocky young doctor will be shouting “Smallpox” loudly enough to avoid being shouted down by older, wiser colleagues.

If I knew that doctor’s name, I would arrange for a bottle of wine and a razor blade to be delivered, along with a note recommending a hot bath and a swift demise. Sadly, that grace is not mine to give, and he, like all the others, will die dancing with my oldest daughter, listening to the sound of distant bells.


My daughter’s reach is spreading. I take my immune boosters regularly, watching the human race respond to her presence. Slowly, too slowly, and without the conviction they’ll need if they’re to survive. I don’t believe they will.

It isn’t too late for quarantine to save them. A great many are infected—thousands, potentially millions, if my calculations are correct—but even more are still healthy, still outside the reach of my oldest daughter’s glorious debut. If they were to stay home, avoid the company of strangers, and wait for a vaccine, they might stand a chance. But no one listens to the doctors, or to the newspaper headlines begging them to stay indoors. Instead, they rush the airports and clog the freeways, rushing to their families, and my daughter travels with them, invisible, spreading further with every step they take.

The visibly sick are left to die in their homes and in the hospitals, while the seemingly healthy flee into the night. The bells are ringing, guiding them along, and the people of the world obey. Ding. The hospitals aren’t safe. Dong. The doctors are lying to you to protect themselves. Ding. Bad things happen to other people. Dong. If you can’t see it, it can’t get you. Pavlov had his dogs. I have the human race. The bells ring, and the people follow.

I go on a few cable shows, speak of the need to observe certain precautions while this “mystery epidemic” is brought under control. In the process, I casually mention the chance that supply chains might collapse, that water-borne diseases might be able to work their way past aging municipal filters. The first cases of my tailored super-cholera reach the news then, and the looting starts swiftly after that. Panic is becoming a contagion in its own right, one that spreads from those who saw the reports to their neighbors, and onward and outward. Other nations report the situation in America, and watch in confusion as that same panic springs up in their own lands. They don’t understand the importance of the bells, but they ring them for me all the same.

Pavlov would be proud.

Alan and Xiang have overseen the North and South American releases. Now, Alan sees to Africa, while Xiang performs his duties in Europe and Asia. It’s so easy to travel, even now, if you have medical credentials and an earnest face. Both of them are known for their work with my lab, for their devotion to mankind, and they have gone unquestioned thus far. Our luck can’t hold forever, but forever was never a factor in my plan. The latency has ended, and the burning has begun. If my youngest doesn’t finish her release, the rest will still proceed. The bells are ringing loudly now. Even if I wanted to silence them, that power is beyond me.

I reach for the loaded syringe that contains the booster vaccine. I need to keep my health and wits about me for a little longer yet; long enough to see whether the human race can grow beyond the tolling of the bells. If they can, they may survive. If they can’t …

My little girls will rule the world.


A stupid accident and a weak-willed fool: that’s all it takes to tell the world what’s coming. Alan was careless with the rats he was releasing into the African countryside. A soldier spotted him, and came to ask what he was doing. He might well have talked his way out of the situation—I hired him, in part, for his finesse with words—but the trap in his hands still contained a rat, terrified, confused, receiving a thousand conflicting commands from its tiny rodent mind. It chose the clearest path, and ran.

Alan, unthinking, grabbed for its tail … and it bit him.

He’s in CDC custody now, begging them to save his life, telling them everything he knows. There has never been a guaranteed cure for rabies, and my youngest daughter is rabies writ large, incurable, unstoppable, already burning out his nervous system. In another day, she’ll mature enough to enter her secondary phase, the one possible only in a primate host. A day after that, she’ll be airborne, and Alan, and everyone who comes into contact with him, will be lost.

I wonder if they’ll realize what’s happened before they spread the virus further, or if my darling will burn through Africa like a match set to dry grass. It makes no difference. So much of what Alan knows is wrong. My lab moved three days ago, after the last of my assistants was safely gone. The “vaccine” he has to give them is tailored for an enhanced strain of the bubonic plague, a project I abandoned years ago. He has no protection against what’s coming. Neither will they.

Still, I wish he’d been stronger. I wish he’d lived up to the potential he once displayed.

I wish he’d been more ready to close his eyes and listen to the bells.


Alan and the African CDC are dead, leaving conspiracy theories hanging heavily in the air. My detractors say he wouldn’t have fingered me if he didn’t have proof. My supporters say he was jealous and embittered, that I would never do such a thing, especially not now, with such a crisis facing humanity. Such beautiful, misplaced faith they have in me.

I say nothing at all. I simply sit in my small, secure lab, and watch as my little girls begin to dance their way around the world. Rabies burns in Africa; smallpox in Asia; cholera across America’s heartlands. Humanity spreads its own destruction with every breath, every kiss, every drink of unpurified water. That’s why I needed all three of my daughters. One alone might not have carried the lesson plainly enough, might have been twisted into the judgment of God. But three … three can be nothing but a lesson.

One that is, perhaps, too late for them to learn. The time for quarantines is running out, and still the people listen to the cold, commanding bells. I wonder if I ever expected anything more of them. Once, perhaps. Once, but no longer.


The streets are clogged with the dead and dying. Yesterday afternoon, a group of individuals in the final stages of their illness burned Chicago General to the ground. People were seen walking into the flames as if they had done the math of suffering and decided that the pyre was better than the poison prisons of their bodies. They may have been correct. My daughter is quick, and cold, but kindness is not a mercy she possesses.

The infrastructure will start failing any day now. The rolling blackouts have already started. For the most part, the power has stayed on, but that will change. Now is the time. There will be no better.

Xiang constructed the equipment I use to commandeer the signal of a local television station. “You don’t need to take CNN,” he explained, so patiently, so long ago. “As soon as the report goes live, the world will have it. Stay local and get the best broadcast you can. That way you don’t have to worry about static changing the message in ways you wouldn’t want.”

He was a smart man. All my assistants were. He died of my youngest, like Alan. Unlike Alan, he used his own infection as a way to carry her deeper, all the way into the heart of Tokyo. I am so very proud of him.

I am wearing my best white silk blouse and the pearls my agent bought me after our fifth book together. My makeup is simple but carefully done, to make me look as healthy and well-rested as possible. Taking the signal is a matter of flipping a series of switches and stepping in front of the camera. Until I move into the frame, it records nothing but the plain white wall of the lab. I have no illusions—what remains of the authorities will surely find a way to track my signal, find my hiding place—but I see no reason to make it easier for them than I have to.

“Hello,” I say to the camera, to the world. “My name is Diana Weston. I am a microbiologist, specializing in the study of pandemic behavior in viruses and bacteria. Many of you have read my books or seen the movies based on them. I have worked with the CDC, the World Health Organization, and dozens of smaller groups over the course of the past twenty years. You have every reason to trust me, and every reason to believe what I’m about to tell you:

“You are going to die.

“Maybe you’re already sick. Maybe a friend or relative fell sick a few days ago, but you feel fine, and you assume that you’re out of the woods. You’re not. Each of the infections moving amongst you has a latency period of more than ten days. Without getting too technical, this means that you’re infectious but asymptomatic for some time before the first outward signs of illness appear. According to my tests, this particular mix of pathogens stands an excellent chance of wiping out ninety-seven percent of the human population. Consider that for a moment. Ninety-seven percent. Ninety-seven people out of every one hundred.” I’m lying, of course. The human race represents a non-immune population, and the kill rate is likely to be closer to ninety-nine percent. My other two children will have very little work to do when their sister’s work is done.

“I’m sure you wonder why I’ve done this. I would wonder, in your place.” My books followed such careful, specific patterns, and this was one: just before the tide turned and the cure was found, the villain would reveal the evil plan that carried the human race so close to extinction. I want them to obey the bells. That means I, too, must play my part. “To put it plainly, I have done this because I can. I have killed your parents, your children, your lovers and your friends, and I have done it because I was capable of doing so. You allowed me to do this. You have refused medical care to the sick and to the poor, even when presented with proof that this encouraged the development of stronger, more effective strains of common viruses. You have abused antibiotics, creating strains of resistant bacteria capable of undoing decades of medical progress. You have ignored the needs of your own bodies, and you have ignored the needs of the world around you, all while using surgeries, dyes, treatments and needless cosmetics to obscure your own degraded state. You have turned your backs on nature, forgetting your place.

“You have disregarded the laws of quarantine.

“The human race is not the first to have ruled this world. The dinosaurs came before us, and when they saw the comet coming, they could only stand and stare. You had the opportunity to turn your ‘comet’ aside. You had years of medical knowledge behind you, scores of experts beside you, and still you chose to run like dumb animals, useless and panicked, to infect the world that you were so sure existed to obey you. I am disgusted by what humanity has become. Shallow. Stupid. Undeserving of its place. I gave you every warning, gave you every opportunity, and you ignored them all.” Ignored them, and worse, laughed at them. Laughed at the reports, penned years before my first work of fiction, that spoke of drug-resistant diseases and rampant bacterial infection. Laughed at the suggestion that survival of the many might require the sacrifice of the few.

I tried so hard, for so long, to make them see. All those years of scrupulous, back-breaking research, all those journal articles and double-blind studies. I wasted years on careful clinical trials with crippled viruses and “germs” of colored dust, struggling for funding and support, being told all the while that science and common sense were downers, and that effective precautions were too depressing to promote. My hope died first, then my sanity, and finally, my humanity; one so-called “virtue” for each child I would later bring into the world. My medical career mutated in the face of their laughter, leaving me dedicated, not to stopping the comet’s descent, but to guiding it to ground.

Still. I felt that I owed the few the chance to save themselves; the chance to run for cover, to close the gates and struggle for survival. So I rang the bells, and watched as mankind danced to their tune. “My name is Diana Weston. I am the death of the human race. And I am not sorry.” I straighten, still smiling. “You deserved it.”

The camera is still rolling when the authorities reach the lab twenty minutes later, broadcasting nothing but the plain white wall. I am long gone, all my files and samples either with me or destroyed. My daughters are loose upon the world, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. Perhaps if they’d known where to start—perhaps if they hadn’t been listening, from the beginning, to the sound of bells—but it is far too late for that.

I watch the raid from the safety of a nearby hotel room, paid for under an assumed name, and realize with joy that I have told the truth: even now, I am not sorry.


The bar is quiet, the television on the wall airing my trial over and over, for any who care to watch. There are only five of us here, and three are too ill to remain much longer. The fifth looks only at his drink; I might as well be nothing but a shadow on the wall. That’s good. My disguises are meant to hold up under scrutiny; that doesn’t mean I should go taunting fate.

I am almost disappointed when they only sentence me on sixteen million counts of murder. My little girls have killed far more than that. I leave a twenty on the bar—meaningless currency of a dying world—and walk into the daylight, leaving the dark behind.


The streets are quiet, the stores long since looted, the few survivors fled to the country, where they think they can be safe. My middle daughter waits for them there, dug deeply into the water tables and hiding in the streams. Cholera is an efficient killer. All I’ve done is improve on the tools that nature put before me.

My fever spiked an hour ago. The first blisters have already sprouted on my lip, tiny kisses from my masterpiece, my oldest, my baby girl. Immuno-depressant smallpox with the latency of Lassa Fever, silent assassin of the human race. I knew the vaccine couldn’t hold forever, that she’d come to thank me for her freedom eventually. I’m simply grateful that she let me watch the world die before she came to take me in her arms. It is a fitting reunion.

I have no regrets.

When I was young, I dared to believe in the good of man. When my beliefs proved flawed, I set a challenge before the world. Given the wrong lessons, shown the wrong examples, would they cleave to survival, or would they let themselves be led? Time and time again, they showed their willingness to take the easy way, like Pavlov’s dogs slavering at the jingle of a bell. So I have rung the bells for them, and they, pampered creatures that they were, reacted according to their conditioning. The quarantine notices lie in tatters in the streets, the hospitals are clogged with the dead and with the dying, and every broken rule was one more sweetly solemn chime.

I know my daughters; I know their lack of mercy. The poison I’ve carried since the start is cool on my blistered lips. I recline upon the bed, closing my eyes, and listen with all my heart to the sound of my beautiful children, laughing, and the distant, endless tolling of the bells.

  • Seanan McGuire

    Seanan McGuire, sometimes also known as “Mira Grant,” is the author of more than a dozen urban fantasy and science fiction novels, including the newly released Sparrow Hill Road. She lives in Northern California, in a town with more than a few ghost stories of its own, where she endeavors not to be eaten by her three inordinately large cats. When not at home writing, she is either at a convention or at a Disney Park. She can be found at, on Twitter as @seananmcguire, or on Tumblr as

Subscribe For Latest Updates

Be the first to learn about our new releases, open calls, and many activities.

Invalid email address
We promise not to spam you. You can unsubscribe at any time.


Invalid email address
We promise not to spam you. You can unsubscribe at any time.

But wait, there's more to read!

a book cover with a picture of an egyptian god.
Short Fiction
Marian Denise Moore

A Mastery of German

Somewhere in the world, there is a man, seventy years old, a native New Orleanian who has never left the city except for the occasional

Read More »
a white mask with the words apex magazine on it.
Short Fiction
Seanan McGuire

Dying with Her Cheer Pants On

Bridget ducked behind the remains of a burned-out Impala, crouching low as the zap-zap-zap of blaster fire split the October night. The sound was already

Read More »
a group of green plants floating in the air.
Support Apex Magazine on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!

Apex Magazine Ko-fi

$4 funds 50 words of Apex Magazine fiction!