The K2 Virus

A new variant of the human coronavirus, K2, sweeps through North Korea. An unsuspecting biochemist delivers a routine batch of flu vaccines to Seoul. When he agrees to play translator for an attractive reporter, he stumbles into a perfect storm of political and biological forces. If he’s going to survive, he’ll need all the principles of Taekwondo he’s been taught since childhood: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, a fast kick, and even faster footwork.

medical thriller 255 pages
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SAMPLE from The K2 Virus
Copyright 2016 Scott Rhine

PrefaceSurvival of the Fittest

Until this project was hijacked by a virus, it was an exploration into artificial blood and other medical nanotechnology. Yes, these things exist. The future is here.
When civets were suspected of originating the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China, thousands were systematically hunted and exterminated. Recent studies suggest that bats might have been the real culprit, as with Ebola. Nonetheless, the purge left a void in the ecosystem. The coronavirus has one imperative—multiply. If one host is eliminated, the virus must adapt to another. Almost any mammal or bird could be selected. Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the fifth and deadliest incarnation of human coronavirus, spread through camels. For the purposes of this story, I’ve invented a fictional variant of the virus, K2, that can spread through cattle. Otherwise, the science you’ll read is as real as I could make it. See the cover for a computer model of what the killer looks like under an electron microscope.
SARS infected over eight thousand people, killing a tenth of its hosts. The Roman commanders used this tactic, known as decimation, to strike terror into deserters. Indeed, SARS terrified people around the globe by the speed at which it propagated. First it takes over your immune system, and then you become a virus factory, spreading the disease to anyone who gets within a meter. For the first two to seven days it feels like any other flu. After a week, most people get pneumonia. In extreme cases, the entire system crashes in an ominous event called a cytokine storm—a runaway feedback loop between the immune regulatory system and white blood cells. Smallpox, Ebola, the Spanish Flu, and all the big plagues had this end game in common. The old, young, diabetics, and those with immune problems or liver diseases seem to be hit the hardest. There is no cure. You just have to ride it out and stay away from others while you struggle to breathe.
That’s not the scary part. Since the original leap to our species, the virus has been learning by trial and error. The next time we face the coronavirus, it will have made improvements.
I described conditions in North Korea as closely as I could secondhand. The horrific famines of the 1990s killed over a million people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). No one knows the full extent because the figures were suppressed. Nor have I been in a DPRK labor camp. The descriptions are stitched together from statements from rare survivors and former guards who defected. You can see the camps for yourself on Google Earth. The similarities to Dachau are eerie.


1. The Nation’s First Line of Defense


Only an insane person would get up before dawn to drive more than an hour to a job he doesn’t want. Daniel Mann fumbled for his glasses beside the alarm clock. Unfortunately, the vaccine lab was the only place in the greater Philadelphia area that offered long-term care benefits for his mother. While he was at the lab and on Saturdays, nurses worked twelve-hour shifts, leaving him with nights and Sundays. As he brushed his teeth, he reflected that her accident had crippled his future as well.
The foul mood only lasted until he saw her sleeping. At forty-eight, the woman was still the unwrinkled saint who had treated him like a prince. She didn’t deserve this. He owed her ten times the payback, but the hours were killing him. His only hope was that if the company struck it big, his stock options might enable him to return to school someday.
“Rise and shine, Mom.” He wheeled over the stand with her hairbrush, toothbrush, and after-bath splash.
In her native Korean, she said, “Empty that wastebasket before she gets here.”
He rolled his eyes. “The maid comes on Wednesday. We pay the nurse. If she wants it clean earlier than that, she can empty it.”
“Medical professionals are not janitors.”
But sons with a master’s degree in biochemistry are? She had wanted him to be a doctor like his famous uncles and father. Maybe Dad’s son from his second wife wouldn’t turn out to be such a disappointment. Nonetheless, Daniel took the tiny wicker basket to the kitchen and dumped the contents into the garbage bin. He lined the wicker basket with a fresh plastic shopping bag before washing his hands in the sink.
As he returned to her room, she said, “Women like a tidy man. There are several nice girls at my church you should meet.”
Daniel smiled. By “nice,” she meant South Korean. He turned CNN on for her because she liked to stay current. The lack of rainfall in Korea was affecting farmers. “Remember our deal. Sunday, I take you in for church and pick you up after the coffee social. I get to eat out alone.”
“A wife could cook a better breakfast for you.”
A knock saved him. He kissed his mother on the forehead and ran to unlatch the door. “Good morning,” he said in English.
“How is she?” asked Ms. Hernandez.
On Sundays, his mother mingled in public, and those nights she was always in a world of hurt. “I gave her a dose for the pain around two this morning, so she’s happy and chatty.”
The thirty-something nurse gave him a sad smile. “Which means you’re a little tired today. Do you want to take a nap before work?”
His eyes flicked toward his room. Tempting. With the round-trip from the Philadelphia suburbs to the Baltimore outskirts, he had only half an hour wiggle room. “No. Every minute I delay, the traffic gets worse.”
“So you work a little less today. No one will notice.”
“I can’t cut corners. I sign off on product safety testing.” He took his premade lunch and a can of soda out of the fridge. Then he checked the thermometer by the birdfeeder on the window and grabbed a light jacket. October had brought a chill to the air. “Relieve you by six tonight as usual.”
“Watch out for the deer,” his mother shouted from the other room. She’d recently watched a news story about Pennsylvania ranking second nationwide in the number of deer strikes.
He waved as he ducked through the garage door. Maybe a crash wouldn’t be so awful. A stay in the hospital would be my first vacation in years.
His smartphone was still hooked up to the hybrid car’s sound system. He tapped “resume” on his current audiobook mystery and pulled out of the garage on mental autopilot.
****
When Daniel pulled up to the gates at Nano-Encapsulated Vaccine Research (NEVR), he saw a trio of cars in the parking lot. He double-checked the time because he was usually the first in and had arrived two minutes earlier than normal. He didn’t recognize the vehicles. The lean, African-American guard scanning his badge used the same tired joke he did every day. “Dan the Mann!”
“Hey, Murphy. Who’s here?”
The guard leaned closer to confide, “Le Grand Fromage escorted a few backers in.”
The board had appointed a French lab manager with extensive experience saving imperiled companies. His security and austerity measures were unpopular, so the employees seldom missed an opportunity to poke fun at him. Points were awarded for wearing SeƱor Frog’s T-shirts from Cancun, displaying Kermit the Frog, or using any cheesy French terms.
The ultra-secure NEVR campus was called Neverland by its employees, most of whom acted like teenagers. They held videogame tournaments in the lunchroom, NERF-dart battles in the cubicles, and contests to see who could cook the hottest chili.
As Daniel drove up to his usual space by his office, he noted the tax-exempt plates on two visiting sedans—government vehicles. NEVR belonged to the class of Washington businesses known as Beltway Bandits. In order to export superior vaccine products all over the world, they needed a government grant to ramp up to production levels. Last year’s anthrax vaccine had been a disappointment due to quality-control issues, so everything rode on the success of this year’s offerings. With flu season almost upon them, Daniel had delayed the already tardy product with an extra week of testing. According to company rules, any employee could delay production for safety reasons. However, management referred to this practice as “standing in front of the train.” Now the investors were demanding early morning meetings.
Despite the chill in the air, he broke out in a sweat on the way to the side door. He didn’t want to be responsible for another plant closure. If that happened, no one in the industry would hire him. Angry employees would egg his car and call his house at all hours. Last time, someone had lit a paper bag on his porch. Only after stomping out the smoking mess did he find it was full of cow feces. He’d thrown away that pair of slippers.
He ran his badge across the reader and stepped into the sterile hall. Voices from the cubicle farm caused his stomach to clench. He removed the static straps from his jacket pocket and tucked them into his shoes. Lately, he spent far more time in the computer room than any clean room. If people were waiting to ambush him in his cube, then they wanted to know the results of his test suite. If so, he needed to see the printouts first and prepare.
Daniel badged into the small computer room, and the roar of the climate control system assaulted him. He liked the isolated chamber because it had its own printer, several large-screen monitors, and superuser access. He had also used the electron-microscope data to run simulations, which required massive computing resources.
He logged in and noted from the date stamp that the suite had completed thirty minutes ago. Next, he sent the report to the laser printer and scanned the summary as it emerged. The contamination tests all came back clean. Only two abnormalities emerged. The first had been expected. Steeling himself, he picked up the sheaf of papers and strode toward his cubicle.
The short, squat lab manager spotted him from a distance and scurried over to shake his hand. Henri LeBeau wore a simple charcoal suit and green power tie. Daniel couldn’t help staring down at the flagrant comb-over that covered the man’s bald spot. In an outrageous French accent, LeBeau said, “Monsieur Mann, I have heard your name often lately. I hope not in vain, eh?”
Daniel struggled not to burst out laughing. Is this a test? Fortunately, his family did poker face well.
The uniformed man who had been camped in his cubicle shook hands next. “Colonel Branson.” His grip was firm, and his crew cut was solid gray. “Like your haircut, son. You ever serve?”
Daniel shook his head. “No, sir, but high and tight was the style when I attended grad school at UT Austin.”
“Hook ’em Horns!” replied the colonel, the way an alum would.
This bonding ritual elicited a smile from LeBeau. “The colonel has a few questions for someone of your expertise.” He turned to Branson. “Monsieur Mann is one of our most diligent workers.”
Daniel adjusted his glasses nervously. “I’m new to vaccines, but I’ll try.”
Branson frowned, an expression that traveled clear to his eyebrows. “Then why did they hire you?”
“My specialization was nanomedicine.”
“You’re shittin’ me. Like Star Trek?”
Daniel nodded. “Here, we use custom molecules down to .002 microns, the nano level. That’s the new standard in this industry.”
“Do the Russians have this capability?”
“Yes, sir. Perftran is a Russian perfluorocarbon product. PFCs are a relative of Teflon that can carry oxygen in a similar fashion to red blood cells. If you watched the movie The Abyss, you saw the deep-sea diver breathe the gel form of PFC instead of air. Other hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers are made from human or bovine blood. These last longer in the patient and can be stored at room temperature.”
“Bovine? Injecting people with cow blood? What is this, the damned Island of Dr. Moreau?”
“The hemoglobin molecules are the same, but the amount of human blood is limited by donations. A lab near my grad school had a product that washed out during phase II testing. I was doing my thesis on solving the problems by wrapping the fake red blood cells in a biodegradable layer and adding a few enzymes. Unfortunately, the company closed its doors before I could finish. I tried to simulate the rest of the results, but the tools didn’t exist yet. I spent the rest of my time improving BioSPICE.”
When the colonel looked blank, LeBeau showed him a little mercy. “BioSPICE provides a common platform to model biological processes at the chemical and cellular level. It’s written in Java for portability.”
“I’ve heard of Java,” replied the colonel, grateful for something familiar.
“Mr. Mann was so good at this modeling that Harvard had accepted him into its PhD program. We hired him away,” bragged LeBeau. “When he worked for Pharmacyte, he saved them the expense of phase II by finding their flaw through his computer skills.”
Saved them a lot of salaries, too. Daniel was a little nervous that the head of the lab knew so much about his history. “Like NASA, human life is our first mission priority.”
Branson nodded, pleased by the sentiment. “How did you transition from blood to vaccines?”
Blood is an $8 billion industry with the stigma of failed start-ups. On the practical side, vaccines are a well-established $160 billion cash cow. Daniel couldn’t afford another failure. “I’ve been interested in germs since age eleven when I almost died of pneumonia.”
“Why NEVR?”
“The encapsulation technology is identical to the Pharmacyte lab’s in Pennsylvania. We use the same fabrication machines, scanners, and contamination tests. Only here, we apply polysaccharide or PLGA coatings onto vaccines for improved T-cell response.”
The lab manager seemed interested in this revelation, but Daniel realized he had just lost the sponsor. He struggled to explain the process the way he might to his grandmother. “You know the basic principle of vaccines. We introduce a dead or weakened bug to the body, so the immune system learns how to beat it.” On the back of his printout, he sketched a picture of a dead bacterium. “That learning process only takes place if our product gets to a memory component known as a T cell. It’s a little fish in a big bloodstream.” He added a representation of the immune cell.
Branson grunted his vague recollection of the topic.
Daniel continued. “If we just throw in an empty hook, we won’t catch many fish. A lot of the vaccine could degrade before it reaches the desired target. Not very efficient. So we bait the hook with polysaccharide worms in a ball around the dead germ.” He added squiggles around the bacterium. “This signals the T cells like a dinner bell.” He drew an arrow from the T cell to the bait.
He pressed on with his sales pitch. “With this method, we handle the big five—salmonella, strep, pneumonia, flu, and meningitis. Those can wipe out someone who’s had their spleen removed.” The splenectomy scenario was one of his more complex test cases for any new product. “We can also enhance vaccines for hepatitis B, anthrax, typhoid, herpes simplex, HPV, and Newcastle disease.” He had explicitly avoided the subject under current testing—hantavirus. Asia experienced over sixty thousand cases a year, but a vaccine had never before been made in the United States.
“AIDS?” asked the colonel.
“I’ve read about exotic HIV experiments with gold encapsulation.”
“Sounds pricey and years away.”
Daniel nodded. “But polysaccharide is cheap and reproducible.”
Colonel Branson pointed at the report Daniel had drawn on the back of. “What do your fancy models say about my vaccine?”
Daniel handed over the pages. “We knew it wouldn’t work on infants under eighteen months.”
“What happens to kids who take it? I mean, one of my women could be pregnant.”
“The mother’s immune system covers the child for six months. Older infants would process the vaccine as waste. I modeled the breakdown using the BioSPICE program. In the worst-case scenario, the sugars reach the large intestine and overfeed the bacteria there.”
“What will that cause?” Branson asked.
Straight-faced, Daniel replied, “The baby’s poop will stink more.”
Branson burst out laughing and clapped Daniel on the back. “I like you, Harvard. The last lab couldn’t even document their testing procedure. Henri here was showing me the manuals you’ve written since you’ve been here. I didn’t know there were six hundred types of blood. You’ve added test cases for every vaccine lab error in the last twenty years. The government loves paperwork like that. Demonstrate this vaccine by injecting one of your staff, and you’ve got a contract.”
“What?”
“I believe in an ancient Roman practice. The engineer who built a bridge should lie under it as the first wagon rolls across. Makes people more careful.”
LeBeau wore a huge smile. The company was saved.
“We can do that as soon as a technician arrives,” Daniel said.
“I want you to do it. I mean, that’s something they teach people to do in grocery stores, right?”
“You can inject me,” volunteered LeBeau.
Daniel stammered, “Can-can I talk to you in private a moment, sir?”
“He wants to take my medical history,” the Frenchman ad-libbed. He guided Daniel to the break room. “Zees ees the moment of truth. Don’t drop the ball now.”
“Th-there’s a reason I never became a doctor. I can’t stand the sight of blood,” Daniel admitted. At age sixteen, he had watched his friend Paul bleed out after a snowmobile accident involving barbed wire. “I get dizzy. It’s called a vasovagal response.”
“So much for your career as an ax murderer, eh? Surely you had to inject someone to get your degree.”
“Several rats and a pig.”
“An old frog is not too different.” The humor shocked Daniel, so the man continued, leading them back toward the colonel. “Monsieur Mann, I trust you with my life. So much that I am naming you head of testing for the company. Just smile and stick me with a needle. Yes? I will procure the resources to speed your testing of the next batch. We can’t keep the customer waiting like this again. You say Pharmacyte has everything we need? I will convince the board to acquire them from bankruptcy.”
Excitement overcame Daniel’s reluctance. “The company will complement ours perfectly, sir.”
LeBeau waved his hand. “Perhaps, but it is production capacity we need now. If we can merge quickly, Neverland can still make a profit this flu season.”
“Yes, sir.”
Pale and shaking, Daniel shoved a needle into the big cheese’s shoulder. His boss’s boss managed not to wince.
When the dose was administered, LeBeau announced, “I’m going to escort the first shipment of the product to the base. The colonel’s men are waiting to deploy. Feel free to take a long lunch and celebrate your promotion with your friends. Your new office will be ready when you return.”
Daniel’s head was spinning from both the stabbing and the generosity, so he didn’t monitor himself. “Yeah, you’ll want to be in the demilitarized zone in case the famine makes the North Koreans reckless.”
Branson’s head snapped up as if a gun had been drawn in the room. “Interesting. Who told you that?”
“It’s not brain surgery, sir. You’re in a rush to get a unit vaccinated for Korean hemorrhagic fever. I watch the news. There’s only one place US troops would need that.”
“In the future, keep your guesses to yourself.” Frowning, the colonel told LeBeau, “I want full DoD contractor checks done on all your personnel before the next shipment.”


2. October Beginnings


Jero didn’t like the term “black-market smuggler.” The famine resulting from the current drought would kill hundreds of thousands of people, but scarcity meant opportunity.
He’d been a mechanic in the military, but civilians in the border town of Sinuiju, North Korea didn’t own cars. Since he’d been born into the “wavering” social class, he wouldn’t be trusted to work on the vehicles of the party elite. Therefore, he reinvented himself as a bicycle repairman. He soon discovered he was the only repairman around who could reliably barter for parts. Then he evolved into an entrepreneur who connected clients with hard-to-find merchandise.
Restaurants needed more luxuries like butter and sugar for tourists. The government turned a blind eye because it needed tourists for hard currency. Jero’s business blossomed so much that he had to acquire an iPod with a touch screen to keep track of all his deals. It could do everything a smartphone could, even send texts near a Wi-Fi hot spot. He avoided any device with a foreign SIM card police could track. Such contraband would drop him into the lowest social class known as the “hostile”—those opposed to the regime.
One morning, his business led him across the friendship bridge into Dandong, China. The guards all knew Jero, and he often tipped the underpaid civil servants in merchandise. Nobody got hurt, and everyone benefited.
Approaching a barn, Jero smiled. He wasn’t a handsome man, but he always gave people what they needed. “Friend, your text said you’re in financial straits?”
Since 1985, the Chinese had been adopting some more Western tastes. Specifically, they crossbred a new type of cattle, the Chinese Red Steppe. The herds were raised all over the northern provinces for the lucrative beef market in Hong Kong. As a single man hoping to cash in on the beef gold rush, Farmer Zongse had been sorely disappointed. “I spent all my extra money on a dozen stupid cows and their feed. Now they’re refusing to give milk.”
No butter opportunity here. Jero leaned over to peek at the deadbeats in the corral. They seemed so sluggish that even their tails weren’t swishing to chase the flies away. “Maybe you got a lazy batch.”
Shaking his head, Zongse bemoaned his fate. “They’re sick, but I can’t afford expensive vet bills.” Normal bovine coronavirus manifested as Winter Dysentery. Lethargy came from dehydration and an overloaded immune system. However, only calves should suffer from a runny nose. This was a new virus, closer to the respiratory killer known as MERS. “They’re losing weight every week. I can’t even sell them for the meat.”
“Why not?” asked Jero. “If the meat is cooked, no one will get sick.”
“Only old and maimed cattle are butchered. Cows this young would raise suspicions. Rumors might start about my skills as a farmer.”
“I might know a man who could solve your problem. My sister’s husband is a butcher who lives in a small town. For a percentage, we could count on his discretion.” Jero stroked his chin, already planning which hotels he would approach with the windfall.
Zongse agreed with enthusiasm. He was already tired of the creatures.
The deal took all the cash at Jero’s disposal because trucks needed special permits to cross the border. Due to a shortage of cash, he helped Zongse load the first of the lazy animals. During this comedy of errors, one of the cows sneezed in Jero’s face. Infected snot sprayed him, causing him to rub his eyes. Viruses love the eyes. “Ugh. That’s the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Laughing, Zongse said, “You’re not through with them yet.”
The driver of the truck ran back, waving his arms. “Stop. I don’t have a permit for livestock.”
Jero rolled his eyes. The driver was a known drunk. “Then what am I paying for?”
“My permit is for backhauling trash on the return trip. Kill them first. I’ll say the hides are for leather. We’ll fit more in, and they won’t be as noisy.”
The three conferred and decided that killing them would be the driver’s responsibility. He received a case of baijiu in exchange for the chore. At a cost of $1.50 per bottle, the Chinese sorghum vodka could strip varnish off furniture. The first few attempts with a tire iron didn’t go well. Blood spattered everywhere, including the driver’s mouth. After he was contaminated, he switched to a sledgehammer.
The trip to the butcher shop beyond the outskirts of Sinuiju went as smoothly as could be expected. Only 7 percent of the roads in North Korea are paved, and those originate in the capital. In the countryside, the roads are dirt or gravel. The limit was 70 km per hour, but traveling that fast on the many potholes could crack the truck’s axle. Besides, that high rate of speed was reserved for senior government officials. Just after dark, they reached a small farming community on Hana Road. Each of the twelve housing units held four families.
Having already worked a full day, the brother-in-law wasn’t pleased. However, for hard currency and the promise of Jero’s help, he worked far into the night. Without electricity, oil lamps were the only source of light. Around two in the morning, the butcher cut a finger through his glove. He thought nothing of it at the time.
This version of the coronavirus had a twist. A simple amino acid change in the protein spike enabled it to hide from the immune system five days longer. This also delayed the onset of respiratory symptoms. Of course, the victim’s bodily fluids were still contagious during this lull.
Shortly before dawn, the in-laws hosed out the trailer and sent the driver on his way, grumbling about the underpayment.
Jero sold his portion of the meat by noon. The operation had been such a success he was already planning a trade for chicken feet in China. He didn’t dare spend his profits in Sinuiju because too many police patrolled the streets. Given the military-first policy of the nation, every train, bus, and truck leaving the tourist town was crammed with off-duty troops. Therefore, the smuggler elected to ride a bicycle south to the crossroads town of Ryongchon. The entire county had twenty-seven thousand people. Jero spent a little of his ill-gotten gain with a prostitute called Sunshine. The transaction wasn’t illegal because he paid her in makeup and didn’t stay past midnight. Her official job was tour guide, but there weren’t enough tourists in winter. They used protection, but shared K2 via a cigarette. Over the next ten days, Sunshine passed the disease to five soldiers she met at the train station, lighting a very slow fuse.
The Hana Road butcher sold his portion of the beef over the next week. The virus declared martial law in his body by suppressing interferon. Then K2 pillaged cells to replicate itself. Unchecked, the virus would consume every cell in the host to spread its genetic message and construct tiny monuments to itself. During that period, the butcher infected his wife and two children, plus three other locals. His children spread K2 to friends through play. Each of the victims experienced a gradual loss of energy, but the flu symptoms hit the butcher first due to his blood exposure. He’d caught the stomach flu several times in his life, and his worst worry was sharing the communal outhouse. The farming community had to collect all human waste in order to manufacture fertilizer.
He did all the right things, closing his shop and warning those he’d come in contact with. However, the disease spread just as effectively through the inside door handle of the privy. On October 19, his toddler son developed severe pneumonia, the number-one killer of children under five. An elderly neighbor, also infected, didn’t get the fever. Instead, the swollen spleen pressed on her stomach, eliminating the desire to eat and sapping her strength. When they found her, she would be clutching her left shoulder in the classic pose of a heart attack. No autopsy would be performed. As long as the killer kept changing MOs, no one would notice.
The driver who’d made blood-to-mouth contact manifested in a different way. Problems with his spleen put more stress on the liver. With his alcohol-induced cirrhosis, his body built up toxins that affected the brain. The yellow eyes and vomiting were hidden by his usual hangover symptoms. When he saw the shop’s “Closed” sign, he assumed the butcher had earned enough from the deal for a vacation. Feeling robbed and delirious from fever, he raced to find Jero. The smuggler kept a one-room apartment over the bike shop in Ryongchon.
Driving too fast for the conditions, he hit a pothole so hard it flattened a bald tire on the driver’s side. Muddle-headed and weak, he took thirty-five minutes to place and raise the jack. When the next vehicle went by, the vibrations caused the jack to slip. The truck fell, crushing the drunk’s foot.
The other driver stopped immediately to render assistance.
The drunk babbled for several minutes. “I demand a bigger share! I had to kill all twelve of them. Jero had better pay me, or I’ll tell the police everything.” The dry smoker’s cough was nothing to be concerned about. Half the men in North Korean smoked. Then, the shock hit. The spleen normally releases everything a body needs to help a struggling victim. However, the sudden, overwhelming viral load on his system was like throwing a cinderblock to a drowning man. He passed out.
Terrified, the Good Samaritan rushed back to Ryongchon to bring a doctor. By the time they returned, the known drunk had suffocated on his own vomit. The doctor ruled the cause of death as alcoholism. Then he contaminated himself on a handkerchief while searching for the man’s papers.
On October 20, the smuggler was rousted from his sickbed and detained by police for suspicion of murder. Jero’s breathing was so labored and his arms so weak that he obviously couldn’t have killed a fly. Due to the untrustworthy nature of his dead accuser, Jero might have escaped charges, but police found the contraband iPod. Fortunately, he had scrubbed the music, videos, and communication history. When the police questioned him, he named Sunshine as his supplier. While they searched for her, the officers threw Jero into a holding cell with his hands bound behind his back. The cell had no bathroom, and he had to urinate in the corner. Thankfully, the diarrhea phase had passed. His coughing fits infected seven criminals and a bailiff that afternoon.
Unfortunately for Jero, Sunshine’s “boyfriend,” the chemical-plant manager, was a member of the Communist Party. He would vouch for her loyalty. She denied the accusation that Jero had purchased an iPod from her. Her pink, rhinestone-encrusted tour-guide phone was registered. Why would she need a second device? In retaliation, she cited an app on his iPod that featured a new quote every day. Many of the quotes were pro-capitalism or from the Bible. Sedition and Bible smuggling were something the police could work with.
The accusation shocked Jero. In an effort to deny his sainthood, he confessed to several lewd and unchristian activities. He had peddled counterfeit Viagra. He stopped short of admitting to the pornography DVDs, which could have meant a death penalty. A little persuasion from a police baton added the sale of black-market Choco pies to his charges. It might have comforted him to learn that his germ-soaked, signed confession infected the chief prosecutor. For corrupting the youth, the judge sentenced him to a reeducation labor camp. Jero hoped for the local Sinuiju prison where he might bargain with the guards. However, he was assigned to the brutal Pukchang mining camp.
****

By the end of the month, thirty people on Hana Road would be infected with K2, but only five of them would die. The casualty rate of one in six was higher than the original SARS outbreak but less than half that of MERS. The fifth incarnation of human coronavirus had failed because it wasn’t contagious enough. However, K2 struck a balance between the extremes to maximize propagation. The newcomer fizzled out in the countryside, but twelve people in high-contact jobs in Ryongchon were hot with the virus.

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