Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

“Papa Six, touchdown.”

Inside the wall, the grounds are laid out formally, in concentric rings. Each ring of growth is separated from the next by a ring of lawn. Big trees, then little trees with flowers on, then brambles and blackthorn, then shrubs and roses, and so on down to the neat plots of daisies growing around the various ponds and swimming pools that ring the house.

“Team Papa, strike clockwise.”

That includes me. Team Baby will be going the other way. Much as we don’t want it to, the densely planted foliage restricts us to the paths if we want to remain quiet. The only good thing is that attack fauna, even xenoforms, would also be hindered by having to thrash their way through the plant life.

“Movement. West balcony. Baby Three, put ‘em to sleep.”

The house is a sprawling affair, like someone wanted a mansion but refused to go higher than a bungalow. Its owner is a collector of rare gems. While the centrepieces of the collection are secured by methods only a fool would challenge, the ‘lesser’ items are scattered about the place as ornaments. We’re after a selection from for the guest quarters, as they lie nearest the wall.

“Baby Three. Respond.”

That call freezes us. I see my fellow shadowy figures crouch low, so I slip up onto the plinth of a big gargoyle statue, then lie along its back, peering over its misshapen head.

“Baby Four? Damn. Team Baby, sound off.”

Something has gone badly wrong. Team Baby are the true veterans in our little foray. That something took them out without a sound gives me chills.

I’m contemplating what could have gone wrong when I see Papa Four slump sideways. As he does so, something skitters out of the way of his body. I run the magnification up on my goggles and a perfectly grass-patterned dinosaur looms into view. Suppressing a squeak of surprise, I zoom out and engage the fauna identifier on my tactical ‘puter.

It’s a Hashichura. Or Hashichuras, as they never come in pack sizes of less than a dozen. Natives of Corbellyon, they resemble the monitor lizards of Earth, but are the reason why their planet is a tropical paradise where humans still sleep under domes. Nocturnal, semi-sentient and possessing a bite that is poisonous, in varying degrees, to pretty much everything. Even Hashichuras are not immune to their own venom, reserving it for when they think lethal force is needed: mating duels, defending territories, etcetera. These gardens are obviously their territory. Which means I’m the sole survivor of the nastiest security system I’ve ever encountered.

They lair at dawn. My escape depends on the time between their leaving the ground behind me and the last of them making it home, allowing the daytime guard systems to activate.

I spend a bitter night on a cold statue, watching for signs of camouflaged predators in the long grass. As predawn lightens the sky, I see several ripples of movement, all heading away.

No time to calculate. I slide off the statue and sprint for the wall. I manage to leap two rings of flora, but have to use the path through the rings of trees. The last lawn I sprint across, using the speed to help my depleted jump rig get me over the wall.

Clearing the wall with millimetres to spare, I drop onto the roof of the fake security van. Moments later, I’m heading for a trip offworld. There are too many bodies back there with links to me.