The Rite of Passage
By O. M. Kindel
“You can’t outrun the Kothaki hunters, they are mindless killing beasts, and the whole planet is covered with them.” Pek had explained this to Aaron multiple times.
“It’s a rite of passage. I’ll be fine.” Aaron replied still not listening to her.
“No, you won’t be fine. I’ve studied what little we know about the hunters. No human can outrun them.”
“Then how come every nineteen-year-old on this station has?”
“It’s just a simulation? Maybe?” Pek didn’t sound sure and she was rarely unsure.
“Pezizi!” Called the transport pod attendant. “You’re up.”
“Coming.” Aaron shouted while offering Pek a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine. See you in about an hour.” He turned and headed toward to pod before she could reply.
“Sure you’re ready?” The attendant asked.
“Alright step in the pod. Your return time is scheduled for fifteen hundred.”
Aaron squeezed into the coffin sized capsule and felt it pressurize. He felt a light pin prick on the forearm as the pod checked his vitals and took a blood sample. Then it rocketed to the surface of Kothak 257 kilometers below.
The pod took the brunt of the landing. Though Aaron still felt shaken. The pod doors opened for him and then re-sealed after he stepped through. His goggles showed him the 54 minutes remaining until his return trip.
Kothak was much like the pictures he had seen growing up. Tall grasses in green and blue hues grew to about waist height. Wide yellow shrubs about as tall as Aaron himself dotted the scene, and with the exception of the small clearing the pod landed in, trees everywhere. The trees were thin, reminiscent of bamboo with a delicate rust red bark. Three meters overhead they ended in a thick canopy of pale blue needles dotted with yellow-green flowers. Sharp spears of sunlight occasionally pierced through.
After a five-minute walk Aaron could no longer see or remember the way back to the pod. He would have to rely on the homing signal on his goggles.
Ventures to the planet surface were only permitted for research purposes. For generations now nearly every nineteen-year-old had made their first trip to gather fur or capture detailed photographs of the hunters of Kothak. Hunters were the planet’s apex predators, and they were clever. They had dismantled every remote drone sent low into the forests. The thick forest canopy prevented any areal surveillance. The station above was left with only vague information and blurred pictures from previously ambushed drones. So, for many years now the stations youth sojourned down in attempts to push forward the cause of science. These trips were never successful, and everyone had returned empty handed. Still everyone that went wanted to believe they would be the first to bring home a new discovery.
Aaron was no exception. Daydreaming of life as a gentleman scientist adventurer as he pushed further into the overgrowth. The vegetation and unfamiliar gravity slowed his progress. He had only gone about one and a half klicks out but decided it was time to begin his return.
“I can’t believe it, Nothing. So much for the planet being covered in hunters.” He muttered to himself as he reached for the goggles to activate his homing signal.
A slight audible “screee” noise sounded to affirm that the system had started. A visual prompt told Aaron to turn 120 degrees left to be on a return course to the pod. He turned only 105 before he found himself face to face with a hunter.
He had always known that hunters on average were about half a meter taller than humans. Now staring at one stooped over to his height, it seemed much larger than he could imagine. The face was fat milky flesh that seemed to highlight every vein that ran through it. The eyes were dull and grey, sitting what Aaron’s mind said was too far above a mouth that was too wide. A sickening grin showed all the creature’s teeth. The rest of the hunter was covered in a patchy coat of rust colored fur. Easy to miss in this forest.
Aaron turned to run. Any direction would do, but as he turned the faces were all around. He’d been surrounded and had not even noticed. Gray eyes against a sea of rust. They were moving slower than Aaron expected. The footage radioed up from drones had shown just red-brown blurs before video feeds would cut out. Aaron thought he might be the first human to see the face of a hunter, let alone a heard of hunters.
He didn’t register the goggles counting down time, Aaron just froze staring over every inch of the awesome creatures that entrapped him. He did hear when the pod began to rocket back to the station. If not for the canopy he might have seen it soaring up and leaving him behind. For the hunters this broke the spell. They moved in on Aaron, teeth bared and club like paws raised.
The station’s transport arrival chime alerted Pek that Aaron’s pod had returned. She had waited nearby. The pod doors opened and Aaron stepped off. The station attendant glanced down at his screens.
‘Successful Cloning. Memories replicated.’ The screen told him as he nodded to the new Aaron.
The new Aaron stepped over to greet his friend.
“I’m so glad you’re okay.” Pek said embracing him.
“I told you I’d be fine. It’s just a Rite of Passage.”
“I’m sorry I doubted you. Did you get a picture or anything?”
“Uhhh” New Aaron inhaled sharply “Guess it’s a rite of passage to come back empty handed. Didn’t see a damn thing down there.”
“Guess the hunters must be shy to other organic lifeforms.” Pek offered.
“Yeah, maybe. So now that I’ve done it. Your birthday is in a few weeks. Are you going to go?”
“I think I might.”
About the Author:
O.M. Kindel is an American Pacific Northwest based writer. He works in speculative fiction, fantasy, and songwriting. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his partner and their corgi-labrador puppy. When not writing, O.M. Kindel is an avid brewer specializing in dark malty ales; and is also a hobby woodworker. The Rite of Passage is his debut published science fiction story.