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They left it in it cage for the longest time. Sometimes, they brought it food--breathing bodies that crumbled from the inside almost as soon as it entered them. Bodies that would never have been partners for it, because the connection between it and them was so poor. (Or maybe, it would think later, because it had been so hungry. They had left it locked up by itself for so long, so long. Almost long enough for it to starve, its molecules beginning to lose cohesion before they finally, finally send it the first body with its delicious heart and lungs and liver and brain.)

One day, they brought it something better, or brought it something while it was fuller. This wasn't just a body. It was able to remind itself to eat the brain last, the way it had been supposed to before. It was able to seep in, to take over this host's functions, to make its arms and legs move. It wasn't a perfect bonding, not even close--it wasn't even an acceptable enough body for it to speak to the host and be certain of being heard--but it was exhilarating nonetheless, to be able to stand on those two silly bipedal legs, and smile at the other watchers, the ones beyond the glass. The ones who watched it, who had caged it.

"I AM VENOM," it said, for that was its name, yes, that was what it had been called, before the meteor it had been on with its brothers and sisters had been hit by something, an asteroid or another meteor or a piece of space junk; that was what it had been called before before before it had been lost and found and caged. It reached out of the host, bent it, subdued it, grew out of it, until it could show them its teeth, and what awaited them when it escaped from its prison. "I'M GOING TO KILL YOU ALL."

Not long after that, its hunger, still and always massive even when it had been so recently sated, caused it to nibble on the brain a little, and then a little more. Soon, the arms and legs that had moved for it before sagged beneath it. The body which had been so useful before was now just a body.

At first, the symbiote thought that perhaps it had erred. It should not have shown its hand, told the watchers of its intent. None of the others would ever have been so stupid. They would have told it it deserved its fate. They would have been right. On any other world it had ever been to, or ever known, they would have been right.

But there was something wrong with these bipeds, with these watchers. Instead of starving it again, or burning it with fire, or killing it with sound, they sent in another host, not long after the last. The bonding was a little better this time, strong enough for the symbiote to see a little of what was in its mind. This host knew nothing of what the watchers behind the glass wanted. All it knew was that it had been taken, too. All it knew was that it was frightened, terrified. All it knew was how to scream, even after the symbiote took over its vocal cords. It screamed and screamed and screamed, so loudly the symbiote couldn't think, and ate more quickly than it would have otherwise.

After that came new host after new host after new host. After the first few, the symbiote began to have some conception of the passage of time; eventually, it came to calculate that it was receiving two hosts a day. Some it burned through quickly; others, it controlled for an hour or two, demanding answers from the watchers beyond the glass.

None of the hosts ever knew anything about what was going on in this place, what the watchers' goal was; even when arguments happened beyond the glass, and some watchers disappeared to be replaced by new ones, the superfluous bipeds were never given to it. It had shown its hand too early; they must have guessed how much it would have learned if they had.

The symbiote had made some guesses, too. If they kept their brains and minds to themselves, still, it noticed the trend of hosts. The first few had been terrible matches for it, so awful it ached for days. But the more often they fed it, the better the hosts became...and if none of them were perfect, some of them were close enough that it almost wished it could have bonded with them under other circumstances.

But only almost, because it had guessed what they were trying to do, what their intentions were...and it wanted it so badly, still, even after everything. A perfect host...one it could bond with, one it could commit to, one it could eat the watchers with when they escaped together, as they would. Why these watchers were searching for such a host for it was beyond understanding, but it could not have been clearer that it was what was happening.

One day, after it had eaten--five hosts in a day, a record, which was enough to leave it not only less hungry, but full and sleepy--a mist began to fill its cell, seeping through a vent in the ceiling that had always been too tightly closed before for the symbiote to wedge its way through. It tried to now, but they'd learned enough about its anatomy for it to be useless...and instead of escaping, it fell asleep, and then must have fallen to the floor, no mind or thought or awareness...

When it came to, it was in another room, another cell, inside a plastic tube. Breaking open the tube was easy, even as groggy as it still was; finding what they'd brought for it this time was even easier.

Some of the other hosts had run from it, screaming that only stopped when the symbiote was in them and made them stop; this one stayed where it was, letting it happen. The symbiote didn't realized why, until it had wrapped itself around the new host's ankle, and then gone up and up through its systems, sampling from a few of its organs along the way: then it was in its brain, looking out through its eyes, and it saw that it was bound. None of the others had ever been bound, but there were cuffs around this one's arms and ankles and legs, and even around its chest, fastening it to the chair it sat in.

It wasn't frightened, this host. It was simply braced for whatever pain was going to come to it. Something always did, when it was here.

Like what? the symbiote asked, because if this was meant to be its perfect host--and why else would they have brought it here, now, like this, if it weren't; why would this time have been so different, if they weren't meant to be different together--then communication was important, Even if the host resisted, and had to be controlled via force, speaking to it mattered.

But when the host answered, it wasn't in words, but in memories. They weren't as clear as the symbiote had expected, but they showed enough: when this host did something the watchers didn't like, they would touch its head with something, and make it hurt, and make it scream, and make it forget, and make it cold.

It (he?) didn't like to be cold, and didn't like to forget, but most of all...most of all, the Asset didn't like to be controlled. Didn't like to be told where to go, and what to do, and then have to go to those places and do those things that he (yes, he) would not have done on his own.

You won't have to do what they say anymore, the symbiote promised him. We'll eat them, together, and then do whatever we want.

It meant to get started, right then and there. To prove itself, and to make the Asset see that he would like the symbiote so much better than the watchers. To see that if the symbiote sometimes (most of the time, maybe almost always, definitely every single time) decided for both of them, he would be better with it than he had been with them. It meant to swell up its body, break the bonds that bound them, eat everyone who stood in their way on the way out to the grand feast that waited for them on this virgin planet...

But then one of the watchers came into the room. In his hand, he had a needle, long and sharp, and full of some strange green fluid. There wasn't time to navigate, not enough time to overcome the Asset's instincts and neural pathways, not enough time for the symbiote to do anything than rise up out of the Asset and bare its teeth and say "YOU WOULDN'T DARE--"

But the watcher--the scientist, one of many the Asset knew, and feared, and hated, even when he didn't remember what he feared or why he hated--did dare. He injected the liquid into the Asset's, into their upper arm.

And then there was darkness, and cold.

When they woke, they did not remember why they'd wanted to fight...or even that they had, before their sleep.

*

For one mission, then two, then three, they were one, the symbiote's self buried so deeply neither it nor the Asset knew it was there, nor where the dividing line was between the two of them. Together, they were the Asset; together, they took out the targets, one-two-three, and didn't even consider taking a nibble, either of the targets themselves, or of the team that had gone with them.

After the third mission, the Asset must have displeased someone, despite the cleanness of the kills, despite how quickly he finished his tasks. He must have displeased someone, because they told him to get in the chair. He didn't want to. He couldn't remember why, except that the chair hurt.

He did what he was told, and then they came in, the doctors in white coats. They asked him question after question. Did he think he was stronger than he had been before? Did he think he was faster? Did he ever have urges, and not know where they had come from?

"No," the Asset said, confused. No and no and no, knowing they were the wrong answers by the way the doctors frowned, but not certain what the right answer would be, fully certain that to lie would only bring more pain.

And when they were done asking questions, and the Asset done giving answers, that was when the torment began. There was no cold, creeping through his limbs, seeping into his lungs; there was no mist of forgetting, either, although he did lose moments, minutes, here and there, strange blank places like a numbed patch of skin, or the tip of a toe blackened by frostbite. There were needles, instead, arrays of them, injected into him one by one, each causing their own reaction. Sometimes he spasmed, back arching, wrists and ankles cracking against the manacles that bound him to his chair; and sometimes, he burned, and saw things that weren't there, and people he didn't know, but to whom he cried out anyway. There were needles, and powerful shocks, and a number of other things, each less pleasant than the last.

And, after the ninth or tenth seizure, the ninth or tenth time the doctors had left him to himself, some part of the Asset thought, His bones heal so quickly. Like the rest of him...

The Asset did not know what this meant. Did not even seem to wonder. But some other part, deep down, did wonder. When it had wondered for long enough, and had begun to wonder clearly enough, it looked for his kidneys, his liver, his lungs, and saw that there was no sign of any damage...no sign, despite the fact that it was not starving, and had not been starving since it had bonded with him. Even though it must have been hungry all the time, must have been snacking all the time, must have been feeding on him for longer than anyone could have fed from a single host.

By the time the shocks began, the symbiote had remembered. Who it was, where it was from, how it had come to be a part of the Asset. It had, too, begun to guess what had happened. When they had given it host after host, waiting to find the results they wanted, waiting to find if it could bond with the Asset without tearing him apart, they had been testing other things, as well. Were there blank places, in its memories of other hosts? It was not certain, for those days had blended together so totally, and its hosts in those days had been only the dregs, bipeds who did not know what was happening to them, or why, and could not have provided it with a timeline even if it had been well and sated enough to seek one...

By the time the shocks began, the symbiote had remembered...but it had not decided what to do. It was hungry, but not starving--and already, it knew what the doctors did not: that this lack-of-starvation would be their undoing, for when it was merely hungry it could wait and when it was merely hungry it could think and when it was merely hungry it could plan, and oh, when it was merely hungry it could lie in wait forever--and so there was time. Time to listen to their voices, their words, when the Asset was too filled with pain or cold or tremors to understand. Time to begin to understand the way this worked, and to compare it to the way it had worked before, when the Asset had been alone.

It listened, and it learned they were frightened, because the watcher in charge was angry. The watcher in charge wanted results. It wanted the Asset to be not just a killer, but a nightmare. It wanted the Asset to inspire terror, to be feared everywhere it went, and everywhere it might go. It wanted more power than it already had, more overtly than it had ever been allowed to grasp it.

It was a noble goal. The symbiote would have admired it, if it hadn't required for itself and its host to be subjugated, to be ruled, to be bidden this way and that. It was one thing to be ordered around by Riot, but by this creature, this meat...

NO, it said, a rumble that would have been heard miles away if it had voiced it from the Asset's mouth, or risen up for itself.

No, came an answer. Softly, faintly. It might have come from a thousand miles away, or might have been a whisper. No. I don't want to be that, either. I'm with you.

It was the first thing the Asset had ever said to the symbiote. Their first full conversation, the first two-way acknowledgement of one another. If the symbiote wasn't entirely certain what the Asset meant, well. They were together now; there would be time.

*

If they were to escape their captors, the symbiote knew it must continue to hide, even now that it was awake, and aware. If it hid for long enough, the watchers, the captors would grow complacent. If it waited long enough, the watchers might believe it had gone, been absorbed into the Asset so thoroughly there would be no finding it again.

It would not be easy. There were species in the galaxy that could bond with another creature and stay forever silent, forever hidden, so that none of the host's fellows would ever suspect what walked among them; the Klyntar were nothing like that. They were made to devour, to rule, to take the bodies they wanted with brute force and leave the husks behind when they had finished. If they'd come to this planet en masse, it would have been under their control already; every biped on it would already have been a host, or a host in waiting, trembling in the knowledge of its coming fate.

It wasn't easy, but the next time they came to the Asset with needles, and electricity, and cold and wet and and and, the symbiote stayed back, as far back as it could.

You're not going to do anything? the Asset asked, during one of the few moments of respite, which were in and of themselves meant to break him/them. You're really not going to...

The symbiote could think of no words to explain what it was doing, in the few moments remaining to them. Already, it/they could hear the footsteps coming; the watchers, returning to see if the few minutes of not-pain would be enough to make it/them fear the pain enough to do what the watchers wanted them to do. Instead, it shoved the knowledge at the Asset, its plan, the knowledge that they had to wait and wait and wait until the watchers had lowered their guard, and unbound the Asset from the chair, and--

The watchers came back in. This time, they had a stick with them, glowing red at the end. At first, the symbiote could have laughed. Then, it could have screamed, because it wasn't a stick, it was a metal rod, and the red was hot it was hot it was burning it was hot--

It screamed, but no sound came out of the Asset's mouth; it writhed, but silently, even as its skin sizzled and filled the air with a smell, the smell of something cooking. Pain filled the world, and all there was in the moment was the heat.

When they finally took the rod away, what replaced the pain was anger, a gulping rage, and the symbiote would have erupted from the Asset's chest if it hadn't heard, Hey there, buddy. Cool off for a second, okay? Count to ten, or something. Remember what we're trying to do here.

If the Asset's voice had been a whisper before, now it was steadier, almost confident. If the symbiote could tell that it was all bravado, that the Asset was as miserable and uncertain as it was, well...even if the host was weak, he was trying to appear strong, and so the symbiote could do no less.

Yes, it said, and did not like the way its voice wavered. YES.

They were given nearly ten minutes alone this time. In those minutes, the weals up and down the Asset's body began to heal. So had his liver and lungs and gallbladder, which had given the symbiote much-needed fuel. This respite, given to them to weaken them, did exactly the opposite: It allowed them to draw together, to take strength from each other, strength that was not taken but given freely, and meant to be shared.

When the watchers (when the doctors the scientists the torturers) returned, they would be ready, it and he, to withstand whatever would come next.

*

This went on for nearly forty-eight more hours. By the end, the watchers' intentions were something new...and because they had grown complacent, and were stupid, they stated them where the Asset could hear.

But by then, they'd gone through the burning a few more times, and the symbiote was huddled deep inside. It would not have known anything new had happened at all, if the Asset hadn't said, They want to separate us. Don't like my brain scans. Think I'm more coherent than I should be. Too slow reacting to the code words. That's what they really don't like, I think. They want to salvage it. They don't care about bringing out the you side of me anymore. They want you out of me now.

Burn me out, the symbiote said, suddenly sure, suddenly certain that was what they would do. That's how. Burn me out, then burn me up.

The first thing it had ever learned was not to show weakness before its host. To rule over another creature required strength and confidence. But it could not keep the misery, could not keep the fear from bleeding over. It had been filled with these things since the third burning, when the pain had once more faded and it had been too filled with misery to come back with rage.

Not gonna happen, the Asset said. Where the symbiote had grown weak, the Asset had grown a strange protectiveness that was not normal for a host to feel toward its symbiote. They had become a wrong thing, a freakish thing, and all it had taken was a needle full of greenish fluid and a stick that glowed red at the end. We're going to get out of here, just like we planned.

The symbiote remembered then, as it had remembered the last few times. If it had not been for the Asset's certainty, it would already have left him, the fifth or sixth or seventh time they had been burned. It would have left him, and hoped for a quick loss of cohesion for its end. Now, it found itself filling with strength again, and knowing that it came from the strangest place, not the Asset's soft organs but the Asset's soft words.

Yes. We'll be free, we'll be together. But how, and when?

First chance we get, I think. Might have to make it for ourselves, though. I don't think they're planning to stop until we're apart again. The good news is I'm pretty sure they're done with the branding iron--they don't know how bad it is for you, they're talking about trying something else.

But as it turned out, the Asset was wrong about that. They may not have known how bad the stick was for the symbiote, but they still had not finished with it. The next time they came into the room, they were carrying not one glowing stick but three...and after everything else, this was what caused the symbiote to break. And when it broke, it was not out of fear, but because the Asset's soft words had brought it back to itself, and once it was back to itself it thought back to what the Asset had relayed to it.

It hadn't been listening that closely, when the Asset had told it what the watchers wanted now. It hadn't been listening, but now it thought back, and it knew they wanted to take it from its host, take it from its Asset, separate them forever because together they were too strong and the watchers were afraid. The rage that had turned to ashes within it now rose up again, its own blazing fire, plummeting toward an atmosphere, the unsuspecting world beneath.

There was nowhere for the rage to go, while the symbiote was within the Asset. No display of strength would free them from the chair; and they had tried, again and again when the watchers had been out of the room. There was only one thing the symbiote could do, a thing it would never had done if it hadn't been for this new rage, if the watchers hadn't been right there when the rage erupted...

It leapt from the Asset's body, and into the nearest watcher, one who was holding two different sticks. And, oh, it hurt, so badly so badly, worse than it had hurt within even the poorest hosts before, but the symbiote took control of the brain and the limbs and it turned and it lashed out at the others with the sticks, even as it tore at the new host's brain and saw what they had done to it, and knew that the Asset was not a perfect host at all, not even close, that they had taken the symbiote and changed it and changed it until they could be bonded, could be together, could be the perfect nightmare--

"YOUR NIGHTMARE," the symbiote said, and bared its teeth, and would have devoured every one of the watchers, except that the Asset was still in the chair and the Asset had been with it all this time and the Asset would be with it again if only he could be freed. So instead of eating, the symbiote reached for the levers, the ones to open the Asset's cuffs.

It meant to jump back over to the Asset, but it had torn too far into its new host's brain, or its new host had poisoned it quickly, the way it had learned any host other than the Asset would come to poison it, now that they had been together. Either way, the moment the Asset's cuffs clunked open, the symbiote lost control of its temporary host or of itself or of both, and felt itself sliding out of it helplessly, barely able to hear or see or know much of anything other than that there were shadows moving, and sounds, and every thing that came close enough for it to bond with felt like only so much more poison--

And then the shadows weren't moving anymore, and the sounds were gone, and for the barest second the symbiote was certain that the Asset had lost, or that if it hadn't, it would go on without the symbiote, for there had so rarely been a host that would not take its freedom. The symbiote had been so foolish, had been so foolish to leave him, the only host it would ever be able to bond with. Now, even if it wasn't burned, it would starve, as it had almost starved before, and it would deserve it, for its own stupidity it would--

Something came near, a shadow in motion. Later, the symbiote would see it from another set of eyes: the crouching, the outstretched hand. For now, all it knew was that this host, whatever it was, didn't feel like poison; this host, whatever it was, was near enough for it to reach out a tendril, and then another, and then for the rest of its body to follow, an instinct and a reflex instead of a conscious deciding, and that was good, because it would also recognize later that it had been too weak and too confused in those lonely, hurting moments to decide anything.

It's you, the symbiote said, once it was inside, and had realized that this host was not only not poison, but familiar.

Yep, the Asset said, bending down to one of the watchers' bodies--their bodies littered the floor, their necks at odd wrong angles, a sight so satisfying it could only have been more so if their heads had been somewhere else--and taking a weapon from his belt. Who'd you think it was? Didn't think I'd leave you, did you?

OF COURSE NOT, the symbiote lied, and knew the Asset knew it was a lie...but that was fine, because they were together, and they were freed, and there were so many things they could eat on their way out.

So many things to shoot, the Asset said. That's the word you want.

Together, they left the room, armed with bullets and with teeth.

Moments later, the screaming began.