I can’t tell you my name, my occupation, or where I live. My life would be in danger if I did. I can tell you that I used to be a microbiologist working for a major pharmaceutical company. I was involved in a project to engineer a bacterial strain that fed on cancerous cells. If you follow health or science news, you may have heard about similar projects using viruses and even nanotechnology. My firm focused on bacteria for two reasons. First, nanotechnology is too expensive to develop right now. They have a production facility sitting dormant, waiting until the market is more saturated with nanotech engineers so they can offer a lower salary and component costs come down. Second, viruses are technically living organisms and, thus, stand a greater chance of escaping the host body, lying dormant, and infecting a potentially paying customer. Bacteria do not remain viable as long out of the host body, so there is less of a chance that someone might be miraculously cured of cancer without shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars. My firm saw the infirm as a herd of cash cows; the more dire the disease, the bigger the prize. All pharmaceutical companies do.
Anyhow, we had been working with the genetics of the bacteria for quite some time with limited success. Some strains died too easily. Some strains wouldn’t touch the cancerous cells. Our seventeenth strain, Reismann 1-17, seemed to do everything we wanted it to and remained viable long enough to begin testing. The carcinomas in our rats began to shrink after one day of exposure to R 1-17. Needless to say, we were elated. After a week, most of the rats were cancer free and none had shown any negative side effects. We partied. Hard. I still can’t drink Captain Morgan without dry heaving.
I came in early the next Monday to check on the rats. They all seemed fine except for Number 29, who had injured his left foreleg. Over the next few days, Number 29’s wound grew astonishingly; where at first there was a small laceration, there became a necrotic wound so deep it exposed the bone. By Friday noon, Number 29 was having trouble breathing. He was dead before I left in the evening. The other 34 rats expired the same way over the next twelve days. The wounds appeared in random places like over the spine, on the ears, at the base of the tail. Analysis of the rats’ tissue showed that the R 1-17 bacteria had evolved to feed on normal cells once the availability of cancerous ones had dwindled. We investigated the properties of the evolved strain to make sure our lab wasn’t in danger. Luckily, R 1-17 cannot survive more than 30 minutes outside the temperatures of a living body. In addition, the bacteria does not penetrate the skin. Even though it feeds on living tissue, R 1-17 cannot enter through keratinized epithelium. It must enter through a mucous membrane or deep cut to infect a new host. Effectively, R 1-17 is not dangerous unless an organism comes in contact with fluids from an infected organism be it through ingestion, blood to blood contact, or other means.
We sanitized the rat cages, kept a small frozen sample of R 1-17, saved the genetic profile, and began work a safer strain of the Reismann bacteria. We forgot about R 1-17.
Or, at least, most of us did.
It was almost a year later that I first heard about Krokodil, the heroin-like drug that causes acute necrosis and swift death. The images of Siberian junkies with forearms that looked like half-eaten turkey legs reminded me of Number 29. I didn’t think too much of it. Krokodil first dissolves the tissue at the injection site. R 1-17 isn’t so selective; it can happen anywhere. A few months later, however, Krokodil showed up in the downtown area near me. It was harder to ignore the horror when it was staring me in the face, but I was busy enough with work that I could push it away. That is, until I saw a local report about a drifter who died from Krokodil and was found at a construction site. His necrosis was on his neck and lower face. Not a normal injection site.
I could feel the cold prickling of fear sweat on my forehead. Did some of the R 1-17 make it out of the lab? Had it been sustaining itself in the rodent population and spread to the drifter through a bite? It made sense: the guy was homeless and probably shared a lot of spaces with rats. A simple toxicology test could show the differences between Krokodil and R 1-17, but those cost money and the police downtown were taking forced furlough days. The department wasn’t finding enough money in the budget to buy both tasers and bullet proof vests for new officers. In a town where police detectives investigated an average of three shootings a day and couldn’t afford to outfit their officers properly, a death that looked like a drug death was a drug death.
I booted up my laptop and pulled up the online police reports for downtown on the PD’s website, looking for drug-related deaths. Each time I found one, I would try to find details in the report, but usually had to resort to Googling the name of the deceased to find leaked crime scene photos. What I was looking for, what I did not want to find, was evidence of R 1-17 infections in the homeless that would support my hypothesis of a rodent vector. Luckily, I didn’t find any. No odd Krokodil deaths in the homeless. No evidence of rodent infection. There were, though, two Krokodil deaths that looked like R 1-17 infections to me. Both men were Georgian immigrants and known criminals, suspected of being involved with a Russian organized crime group. They were both dressed nice enough that there was no reason for them to stoop to injecting Krokodil in place of heroin. One could have sold his gold watch and got at least one fix. Aside from that, the necrotic flesh on one man was located on both the abdomen and the end of his nose. His lower ribs and several folds of intestines were exposed. Again, not a normal injection sites. The other man’s necrosis was confined mostly to the thigh. That one could go either way, but it seemed odd.
I began developing another theory. Instead of an accidental R 1-17 outbreak, maybe there was a break in at our lab. The next morning I checked the refrigerated room that held our frozen strain samples. The outside and inside locks were both secure, as was the locked drawer that the R 1-17 sample had been in. The sample itself was gone. I worked through the morning without mentioning anything to my coworkers. At lunch, I called a friend from graduate school who had gone to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and told him what I found. He seemed a little dubious about the Krokodil deaths, but he did take the theft seriously. He said he would make some calls.
The next morning, I got a call from the local FBI office on my drive to work. The CDC had put some biologists on a plane headed for my city to investigate the bodies while the FBI worked the theft angle. I met with an agent at a Starbucks near the laboratory. He asked me a few questions about the theft and how I came to the realization to check for the frozen sample before he started asking about my coworkers. Within an hour, we were done. The agent told me to take my time with my coffee; he was pretty sure the lab wasn’t going to be open that day. Everyone was taken in for questioning, but the lab director, Dr. Reismann, broke down quickly. 8 months previous, he was indebted to the Russian mafia for $185,000 that he couldn’t pay back. They had threatened to cut out his tongue and perform a living autopsy on his wife while he watched if they weren’t paid within the month. Instead of trying to get the money together, Dr. Reismann made a deal to drop the debt in exchange for R 1-17. In exchange for his testimony, the FBI cut Dr. Reismann’s prison time. Dr. Reismann disappeared before the case ever went to trial.
The agent I had met with at the Starbucks recently came to see me. The only hope they have of salvaging the case against that particular mafia group is if I appear in court to testify about my discovery of R 1-17 being used to cover up murders as Krokodil overdoses and serve as an expert witness on R 1-17. I’ve been relocated to another state for my protection. The trial is in three weeks.
I’ve been following the news almost obsessively, poring over internet reports of drug-related and mysterious deaths to see where R 1-17 is being used. Even if my testimony puts the group that bought the R 1-17 away, that doesn’t mean that the R 1-17 magically disappears. Some other head of the Russian mafia has it somewhere. I know, for a fact, that they do. A body was found floating in a reservoir in central Illinois yesterday, an apparent Krokodil overdose. The face is bloated from being in the water, but there’s no mistaking it’s the face of the man I worked with for four years. It’s Dr. Reismann. I can’t believe the people who held him would be so short-sighted as to dump a body full of deadly bacteria into a public water source, but they obviously weren’t thinking about the repercussions.
That’s troublesome enough. More troubling, however, is the rest of the police report from Illinois. Also floating on the water were several fish with necrotic tissue. The current theory is that the man had so much Krokodil in his body that the fish who fed on his flesh got the chemicals in their system, as well.
It’s R 1-17.
If you live in central Illinois, don’t drink your tap water and don’t eat fish caught in any reservoir. If you experience headaches, severe abdominal pain, or unexplained rashes, alert the CDC immediately and quarantine yourself. Do not seek emergency room treatment for your wounds, you’ll only spread the bacteria.
There is no cure. We made all of our strains resistant to all known antibacterials so that medications wouldn’t negate the cancer-fighting effects.