Chapter 1

One thing was certain; Jeanette was wrong. Mark Oxford was not developing a new identity.

Marko knew that even before she insisted they go to Chinatown to visit the Ox in the box, but went along in part to humor her, and in part to see if the Ox in the box might know of a way to put a stop to the ink-blood thing that seemed to have hacked its way into the Network. He wasn't much help. He did make it clear that it wasn't an added derangement to his already cracked mind, but in fact an entirely different entity rather than simply a new identity. Marko was already aware of that much, as he was fully aware of its presence. It was more like an interloper or usurper in the Network – new and unwanted voice. When he said as much to Ox, the old man with his strange little shop only laughed his dusty laugh and recommended that it be exercised.

That was about six months ago. Two months after that, others in the Network started having problems with the ink-blood too. There was no question; the Network had indeed been hacked. The whole thing started, to Marko's memory, the night that Tabby-Cat first tried to kill the Wizard king and then attacked him when he stopped her. Only it wasn't Tabby-Cat that did it at all; it was it. She had it worse than he did. Tabby-Cat thought it was possible to treat their shared condition like a virus, which made sense; it was acting like a virus, infecting the entire Network all across the country. The Network had even gone so far as to make quarantine on those who came into contact with it. That meant he was basically cut off from most of the Network.

Marko sighed. Never in two lifetimes had he ever felt so lonely.

For the past month or so, it had been fairly quiet; at least for him and those in the Network that had been quarantined. Some of them had even begun to risk chatting again.

...It travels...

...only one place at a time...

...Isolate it...

...eliminate the source...

...destroy the point of origin...

"NO!" Marko shouted, causing Jeanette to jump, startled.

"That isn't our safe word, kitten," she commented playfully. "But if you're not in the mood tonight, that's fine; you don't need to shout. We can do something else."

Marko blinked, confused for a moment before he realized he just used his outside voice.

"I'm always in the mood for you, Jeanette," he assured her. "I used my outside voice while talking to my inside ones. The Bad Voice has gone someplace, and they started to speak up."

Jeanette cooed. "Did they say something nasty?"

...there's only one way...

...skin the Cat...

Marko winced. "As a matter of fact, they are. They think it's Tabby-Cat's fault; that she's the source and needs to be skinned."

"What do you think, Kitten?"

"I think she's more like Patient Zero than the origin. She got it somehow from somewhere else and passed it on. It's more complicated than that, but I don't fully understand it either." Marko answered.

"Do you know what I think? I think you're not quite seeing the whole photograph." Jeanette suggested. "You're on the right path, but you're not looking far enough down the throat."

Marko raised an eyebrow. "Go on," he invited.

"Tabby-Cat isn't the source, but she knows where it is and will protect it like a Tiger."

"Why would she do that?" Marko asked. "She's in even worse shape than we are."

Jeanette laughed. "Did you ever think to wonder if she sees it that way, Kitten?"

Marko had to admit that he hadn't. Since this thing got into her, she had grown exponentially; both in power and in authority. To most the authority part would seem like a simple matter of her being a Camarilla supporter since her embrace, but the power part was something of a mystery to all; even the Wizard-King was evidently at a loss.

Or was he? Was he really? House and Clan Tremere were well known for their secrecy; they were like a pyramid in a pyramid. They could almost break off from the Camarilla and be a sect of their own, but they were too clever for that; to do that would liken them too much to the Setites or the Giovanni. The point was, maybe old Harpy Strauss did know something; maybe he was playing his cards pinned to his chest for some reason. Maybe this was some weird Tremere play. Well, the Wizard King should be back from his appointment with his pyramid-boss by now.

Maybe it was time to have a little heart to heart with the Harpy.