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The message diffused through the waters of the homeworld with the full backing of the core leaders. The taste of it was sharp and clear with that many powerful people pushing the initial signal. Anyone who picked it up propagated it further to ensure it reached everyone concerned. With the additional chemical markers signifying official orders, each iteration was utterly faithful. Venom caught the message after five or six intermediaries had passed it on. The content was simple: a scouting mission, the timing, and the long-range names of the four who’d be going. And the hierarchy, of course.

Venom was a little surprised to taste its own name among the four, but this wasn’t the first scouting mission it had been selected for by any stretch. It was more odd that it didn’t recognise all of the other names. Usually at least the team leader was recognisable to the other members of a scouting group, but Venom had never met the person with the long-range name ‘Riot’.

The currents gently pushed Venom in a loose spiral while it considered its options. Going into a hostile environment under the guidance of a complete stranger was an unappealing prospect. It had also hunted and eaten recently enough that searching out the mission leader wouldn’t be too much of a drain. But tracking down Riot would mean interacting with people closer to the central current, which was also unappealing. Venom didn’t think a team leader would be far from the best hunting places. Still, having an official reason to be closer to the central current would make things less dangerous and it had been a while since Venom had ventured that far from the outskirts.

Tendrils speared out from its centre mass and reformed into Venom’s sleekest travelling formation. It tasted the currents, paying attention to the diffuse signals pinging off its receptors. It wouldn’t have to go far to find people to ask about Riot. At least the team leader had a strong long-range name, which would be easy to communicate at a distance.

Venom was astonished that it only had needed to ask after Riot through three intermediaries before it got a location. Apparently the team leader was hunting in the outskirts. Why it was hunting there was a bit too complex a question to ask long-range and Venom was loath to get much closer to anyone else. It wasn’t well-liked. Too aberrant. That was probably why it had been selected for scouting. Missions could be a chance to fix shortcomings by getting new hosts and finding new information to integrate. And despite some completely unfair and baseless accusations about alleged personality defects, Venom was good at infiltration.

Having determined Riot’s approximate location, Venom jetted off further into the outskirts. There were a lot fewer people around, which made it both easier and harder to find Riot. What finally alerted Venom was the faintest trace of blood in the water. The taste-scent was rich and alluring and the most sensitive receptors along Venom’s membrane were primed to detect even a few molecules of it. Felt like Riot’s hunt had been successful. Or was about to be.

Venom slowed as it followed the trail of blood, eventually stilling entirely when it tasted the first hints of someone else’s presence. The taste-presence was almost certainly Riot’s. The signal was strong enough to be a leader’s and Venom still had no idea why one of them would be this far out. After another moment of hesitation, Venom up-regulated its communication receptors, while simultaneously stopping most of its own presence signalling. It wasn't sneaking, per se, it was just… being a little bit stealthy. It didn't want to interrupt a leader in the middle of a hunt.

Venom let the current carry it toward Riot, only propelling itself with a few of its tendrils. When it got into communication mid-range it stilled again. Riot was hunting a deepteeth gouger. That explained why it was in the outskirts, at least. Deepteeth gougers were large, territorial and dangerous. They could only be found this far out and not many people bothered hunting prey that could fight back hard enough to win.

Venom drifted in the current and observed the hunt. Riot was fast, sleek and deadly. Its outer membrane was a blur of transformation, but the way its tendrils moved was too fast to be the usual hunting and feeding shapes. Its tendrils lashed at the gouger and they bit deep, sending a cloud of blood through the waters. Teeth couldn't do that. Blades, Venom realised a moment later. Those tendrils had to have thin cutting edges to get that result. Venom had caught rumours of that kind of weaponry, but it had never encountered it directly like this. No wonder Riot had been selected as a team leader.

The deepteeth gouger made a noise, the feel of it vibrating through the water and making Venom’s membrane ripple uneasily. Riot made its own noise in response. The frequency of its vibration was much more pleasant. The gouger went limp as it died and Riot’s tendrils reformed into feeding tendrils that wrapped around the meat.

Venom hesitated one more time before increasing its outward chemical signalling closer to normal levels and letting its presence become noticeable. The leader’s membrane rippled when its receptors caught Venom's signals and its body bristled with sudden blades and teeth. Don’t touch my kill. Kill you, it threatened, the message strong and acrid enough to flavour the surrounding waters in all directions.

Not a scavenger. Observing, Venom sent back, letting a hint of its indignation flavour the message. It had been called a lot of things by other symbiotes, but scavenger was a particularly nasty accusation.

The leader's membrane shifted again, a few of the blades turning back into feeding tendrils and curling around its kill again. Observing? Why? it asked as it fed.

Venom repeated the message about the mission, emphasising Riot’s long-range name. I am Venom, it added. My mission too. Venom drifted a little closer. Riot had a fresh kill, which meant that it wasn’t likely to attack for food, but it would also be more defensive. Either way, Venom wanted to be in close-communication range. Having a long-range conversation wouldn’t tell it much about Riot. They hadn’t even exchanged full names.

Felt your hunt, Venom sent, adding the tang of its admiration for the elegant kill. Good hunt. Communicate close-range? Maybe it was a little presumptuous, but Venom started building the cellular infrastructure for a more complex exchange. Those receptors and chemical packets carried far more nuanced signalling potential than the brute-force messages that were designed to carry clearly over distances through liquid.

Riot gave an affirmative response so Venom closed the distance between them, making sure to keep Riot’s mass between its kill and Venom. No misunderstandings. Riot sent its full name once they were close enough. The name was aggressive, the components simple and strong-binding. Venom’s communication receptors tingled as they transduced the signal.

Venom sent its own full name in response. Riot extended a few cilia into the meagre space between them, tasting Venom’s name closely. Its approval radiated out after a moment. You have a subtle name that is well-suited to infiltration.

Venom’s tendrils curled and flexed, pleased by the compliment. It had deliberately chosen a subtle full name with rapidly degrading components and it didn’t like it when others mistook that for a weak name. Riot hadn’t made that mistake.

I’ve never encountered anything like those blades you formed during your hunt, Venom sent, carefully, cautiously.

I acquired them on a mission. There’s a lot of interesting information to be found out there. Riot’s close-range chemical messages carried strange accents of complex biomolecules Venom had never felt before. The taste was a clear indication of just how much of Riot must have been shaped from past hosts and alien genetic information from beyond the stars. Venom wanted.

Show me? it asked.

Riot stilled. It had finished enough of its kill that it probably wasn’t feeling the burn of hunger. The tendrils that were holding the kill in place elongated and thinned, dropping the meat further away from both of them. A good sign. It closed the distance between them slowly. Venom had felt how fast it could move on the hunt, but this was deliberate and careful. Then one of Riot’s tendrils reformed into a blade. Venom held utterly still as the sharp edge of it dragged down one of its own tendrils. I won’t show you my blades the way you want me to. I don’t trust even a team member that much.

Venom felt a twist of disappointment. The depth of information Riot had was alluring, but not wanting to share weaponry was perfectly reasonable. Of course, I understand. You’re a leader and we’ve never worked alongside each other in a hostile environment.

All true, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have other information you might find useful or interesting. Venom’s tendrils coiled and uncoiled at Riot’s offer. It could imagine the sorts of information a team leader would have picked up, likely from dozens of missions and hosts. Venom could feel itself up-regulating specialised pili at the mere thought of an exchange with someone with such a wealth of information. Riot could probably sense the up-regulation, maybe even taste it. A shudder worked its way through Venom’s membrane.

Yes. That is likely, Venom sent.

Riot’s tendrils slid in closer, tangling with Venom’s own. The surface proteins it was up-regulating were exotic and complex, but bound perfectly to Venom’s receptors. Riot had a bit more mass, having fed so recently, and it was able to coil far around Venom and even ooze completely over patches of particularly dense cilia. It felt good having someone else’s mass bound so tight-close. Anticipatory pleasure swept through Venom as adhesion junctions formed between them. Riot tightened its grip in response and the cascade of its satisfaction was a sweet, clear signal released right against Venom’s surface membrane.

A flicker of apprehension shivered through Venom. It was expecting a lot of new information from Riot, even if it wasn’t sharing its weaponry. Getting that much new data could be unpleasant if it happened all at once and with the discrepancy between them, Riot had no reason to be patient. Venom braced itself, cellular mechanisms already primed to shunt most of the new genes into endosomes to be processed and integrated later. Even so, exchanging with Riot would probably leave it pained and reeling. Worth it though, to get a taste of that exotic, alien data. Maybe some of Venom’s offerings would be interesting enough to convince Riot to linger just a bit.

Ready? Riot asked. Its communication signal was only a few molecules fed directly to Venom’s receptors.

Yes, Venom replied equally low-intensity, oddly touched by the warning.

Instead of a flood of new information, Riot sent copies of a few plasmids and then stopped. Venom writhed, torn between the desire to integrate them immediately or shunt them away in preparation for more.

Integrate them, Riot sent, its signal far stronger than it needed to be this close.

A shiver worked its way along Venom’s membrane as its receptors caught the harsh command. It relaxed its conscious grip over its cellular processes and let the integration happen. The cascade was automatic and felt good as Venom spliced in the useful information and discarded unimportant carrier sequences.

The barest moment after the genes had slotted into place, Riot sent more. But it was still a trickle of information, barely enough to occupy all the up-regulated cellular machinery that was hungry for data. Venom thrashed. This was the slowest exchange it had ever had. It ached to satisfy the craving growing in its cells. Riot was sending just enough information that Venom couldn’t down-regulate any of its pathways. Riot had to know what it was doing, what this felt like. Then it signalled, releasing the chemical message right against Venom’s surface where they were pressed together.

Could keep you like this for a long time. Hungry. Waiting. Integrating whatever I give you.

Incoherent with need, Venom made a high frequency sound. The vibrations rippled across Riot and back through Venom in a feedback wave. Craving for information was a different kind of hunger, and satisfying it was just as pleasurable as consuming. Venom didn’t have the sheer volume of information Riot had access to, but it had something unconventional, so it retaliated in the only way it could, clumsily packaging its most interesting sequences and shoving them back at Riot.

Riot’s tendrils clamped down where it was twined around Venom and it rippled. Different-strange sequence. Good. Riot’s signals were caught between short-range and long-range and Venom felt smug.

Riot was distracted with its own integration and, either consciously or not, it sent more information back. The teasing trickle intensified, not enough to hurt, but enough to occupy every integration pathway Venom had built. A deep satisfaction welled up and Venom stopped trying to direct the process, just let its cells take what they wanted from Riot’s offerings. It drifted, senses focused on the exchange, on Riot, barely aware of their surroundings. This sort of joining had an edge of symbiosis that was almost enough to fulfil a half-acknowledged yearning that Venom worked hard to keep to itself.

The flow of information eventually stopped. Venom sent one last sequence back as its thoughts cleared out of the pleasured haze it had been drifting in. Riot shivered and began slithering back to itself, breaking the connections gently. The tight junctions between them degraded as ligands and receptors decoupled and were reabsorbed.

Riot signalled first, once they were more or less discrete entities again. What was that you gave me initially? The strange sequence?

Venom flexed its tendrils, subtly pleased to have had something Riot hadn’t encountered before. I made it.

That definitely piqued Riot’s interest. Made it? What?

I picked up a terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase a while ago. It can add randomised sequence data. I experimented.

Risky. Impressive. Riot still felt intrigued by the idea and its tendrils swayed in the currents as it thought through the implications.

Gave you the transferase at the end, in case you wanted it too.

Maybe useful. Between missions, Riot added a little more intensely than it needed to while they were drifting this close.

Venom considered the upcoming mission. Exchanging with Riot hadn’t been Venom’s intent when it had sought out the team leader, but the process had been reassuring. As team leaders went, Riot wasn’t the worst one Venom had met. Any advice for the mission? it asked.

Riot’s signalling profile changed at the question. Its presence became clearer in the water and a few blades formed along its membrane and melted back. Follow orders. If you put the mission and the interests of our people first, then you and I will have no trouble. I despise scouts who treat these missions as an excuse to indulge. I kill deserters.

Venom didn’t flinch away from the nearly acrid signal, instead extending its tendrils to make sure its own signal was very clear. I won’t make trouble. I understand the mission comes first.

Good. Riot’s tendrils lost their aggressive edges and the flavour of its signalling mellowed.

They drifted further apart then, out of close-range communication. Venom focused on the tastes and presences in the opposite direction from Riot, already scanning for threats or prey as it prepared to move on.

Venom, wait, Riot sent.

Venom turned its attention back to Riot, communication receptors automatically shifting toward that surface. Riot had reformed a couple of blades and it sliced through a portion of the deepteeth gouger meat it was holding. The blades melted away as Riot proffered the chunk of food. For you.

Venom stilled, not moving to take the meat, but not flicking its tendrils to move away either. Information exchange was one thing, but Riot was offering a piece of its kill. Venom knew even the most interesting DNA packets weren’t worth food. But if Riot was offering

Venom’s tendrils reached out hesitantly and coiled alongside Riot’s around the piece of meat. That brought them back into close-range.

Why would you offer this? Venom asked warily.

You came to the outskirts searching for a team leader you’d never met. You saw me hunt with weaponry you’d never encountered and your first thought was to flirt in case I wanted to share them with you. That indicates good things about your use in the upcoming mission.

One of the tendrils Venom had coiled around the meat was already starting to form feeding structures. The travel had sharpened its hunger, after all. Thank you. For this. And for the exchange. Maybe on the mission I’ll find some information that’s good enough to trade for your blades, Venom sent.

Riot’s exuded amusement. Maybe if you prove yourself on the mission, I’ll show them to you anyway. With that, Riot slid its tendrils back toward itself, taking them out of close-range.

A shiver worked its way through Venom’s membrane. Missions were often dangerous and being low-ranked in a scouting party was rarely fun, but Venom found itself anticipating this one. Working under Riot might not be too bad.