The Scarlet Plague, Part 1

by Jack London

Adapted to chat format and condensed by Captivated Chat

Me
I am recording the scary plague story of mankind only for myself, for my own sanity, perhaps even from some age-old sense of duty, for I have not the slightest hope that it will ever be read by any living human being.
Me
I was a professor in the great university at San Francisco, Professor James Smith, a man who believed in reason and abhorred blood, but that was before the terror and the madness. This morning I killed a small animal with my bare hands, then squatting down I tore a hunk from my prey and ate it raw.
Me
It began simply on a Monday morning. I was having breakfast at the counter in the campus cafeteria. A friend was glancing over some news sites on his cell phone.
Bill
I don’t know why I do it, Jim.
Me
Do what?
Bill
Read these news updates every morning. Nothing changes: senators all back on the Hill after a whirlwind Asian tour; crimes of passion in Louisville; bomb threats.
Me
Good citizenship compels you, maybe.
Bill
Perhaps, but what about this item down in the corner? Way down in the corner: New York fights scarlet death! Some news reporter’s pipe dream, I suppose: nine persons have died since last night of a strange malady that has left doctors at Manhattan hospitals admittedly baffled.
Me
That’s terrible!
Bill
The disease strikes without warning and slays its victim in less than an hour.
Me
How sensationalistic, that reporter!
Bill
The first symptom is a feeling of well-being, with a slight rise in temperature. Then a fiery red rash appears on the hands and face and spreads rapidly over the body. Within thirty minutes comes a coma and death.
Me
What do you think?
Bill
Ridiculous, after all there’s no disease that attacks like that. It’s food poisoning, Botulism, something of that sort.
Me
Bill I’m eating!
Bill
Medical authorities are unanimously agreed, however, that no general danger exists, and that there is no cause for public concern or alarm. That’s double-talk for we don’t know what it is yet.
Me
Hmm. What about a mutation?
Bill
Mutation apart, how do I know?
Me
You’re a physiologist!
Bill
Oh you’re talking about those occasional scary plague stories, I suppose, harmless virus or bacteria mutates and grows into some new deadly bug. Antibiotics won’t touch it. Medical science helpless, a million people wiped out overnight?
Me
Sure, it’s a possibility, isn’t it?
Bill
No, Jim, bacterial and viral strains are always mutating and usually the mutation is less harmful than the parent. But that other idea’s been overworked for years! Pass the cream, please.
Me
Hmm. Is it a possibility or not?
Bill
Yes, it’s a possibility.
Me
Okay.
Bill
You’re stalling, Jim, that rook’s the only piece you can move, and you know it.
Me
Don’t rush me; we’ve still got the queen back here!
Bill
Let’s see, and here is the latest development on the Red Death: up to now the death toll in greater New York is 321 persons; in Boston, 94; in Chicago, 181. Medical findings expected soon, with every liklihood that the cause will be isolated and an effective treatment prescribed.
Me
 How can it spread so fast?
Bill
It’s hard to tell, not knowing the period of incubation, whether it’s airborne, contagious by contact, or how long it’s contagious before the symptoms show up. Just one thing is sure, something’s got to be done fast!
Me
I guess we can call ourselves lucky out here; fact is, there hasn’t been a case reported in San Francisco.
Bill
No, not yet.

* * * * * * * * *

Ten minutes later

Me
I sat for a long time in my empty classroom paralyzed with shock by a fear of the unknown. A girl had walked in the class smiling and talking and now she lay dead at the back of the room. But why, and why so fast? I went to the Faculty Club where Bill was sharing this scary plague story.
Bill
Greater New York estimated two hundred eighty-four thousand deaths! Philadelphia, estimated 220,000 deaths. Here’s a bulletin! London: the scarlet plague is raging in Europe. The death toll in Moscow at 180,000.
Me
No word of any cure, Jim? I just walked across the campus: it’s completely deserted.
Bill
Guess the back of the club here is the only holdout, and at that there are only four, four counting you and the security guy, plus our Blake. She went over to her room to pack. Dr. Barnes is out in the kitchen getting us all some drinks.
Me
Bill, that girl who died in my class a while ago? One minute she was all right, and a minute later she was dead!
Bill
Well it’s fast, that’s one thing.
Me
Can you get it from contact? I touched her forehead with the back of my hand.
Bill
Nobody knows how you get it. Transmission couldn’t be mainly from contact, not millions of cases in less than 48 hours.
Me
Why can’t they find a cure? They’ve had two days now, what are they all doing?
Bill
Dying, Jim, like everybody else.
Barnes
There you are! Have a Zombie Smith?
Me
Oh, hey Dr. Barnes.
Barnes
Yeah, maybe this will help.
Me
Scotch?
Barnes
Why not, there’s a whole case of it out there. I think it might be a good idea to turn that radio on.
Radio
Vehicles are being stopped and turned back at army control points. Stay where you are: do not attempt to travel!
Bill
Yes, you’re right, Dr. Barnes, we’d better learn from media while we can. How much longer can services like radio, television, and transportation go on?
Me
Sure, I guess you are no safer in one place than another: after all, the plague is everywhere.
Bill
I’ll try to raise some news somewhere else, maybe my cellphone.
Radio
The United States and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a bulletin just handed to me Johns Hopkins states that Dr. Theodore Von Zwickler who had announced near success in identifying the cause of the plague has just died. But unfortunately Dr. Zwickler left no notes on his work.
Me
What’s happened to the lights?
Bill
A power failure. I guess it was bound to happen soon. There’s a flashlight in that desk drawer.
Me
I got it.
Dr. Barnes
There’s a portable radio with batteries in the game room.
Bill
Oh let’s leave it for the moment.
Me
Oh yes, the liquor sounds better than the news!
Bill
Well in that case, wonder what’s keeping Miss Blake? After all, she said she was coming right back.
Me
Hey, wait a minute, where’s that light coming from?
Barnes
Looks like a fire.
Me
Maybe we can tell from the windows.
Bill
Not one fire, a thousand fires, down there toward the bay. Berkeley, Oakland, and over in the city.
Barnes
Why? What started them?
Me
Hear that?
Bill
Gunfire!
Me
Yes they’re not waiting for the plague to do the job.
Bill
No, and they’re already out in force.
Barnes
Who?
Bill
Looters, neighbors, robbers.
Me
Certainly, anyone with a hate or a grievance. It’s started already.
Bill
But it’ll get a lot worse.
Me
Oh yes, it’ll get worse.

[Look for Part 2]