The sun was a burnt orange ball sinking toward the hazy horizon and the air was beginning to cool when Rio heard the faint rustling of leaves somewhere behind him. Not daring to turn, he froze, muscles tense and sweating hands gripping the smooth handle of his bow until his knuckles turned white. He remained that way for a few endless moments, straining to hear it again so that he might pinpoint the source, but the only sound that came to his ears was the hum of turbines from the nearby road.
Gradually Rio relaxed, but several minutes passed before he found the courage to slowly move his head enough to peer over his left shoulder. When he had convinced himself that the sound had only been his imagination, he mopped the perspiration from his brow with the sleeve of his camouflage jacket, leaned back against the trunk of the small tree, and took up his vigil again.
Rio had hunted only twice before in his life. The first time was when he was a boy growing up in the mid 21st century, when permits had been easy to come by. Eighteen years later he'd been among the lucky lottery winners and drawn another permit, but like his first hunt, his tag went unfilled.
The lottery, although unpopular, was necessary. After the last of the wild land had been swallowed up by the ever-expanding metro-hubs, the ancient sport of bow hunting seemed doomed -- especially since the national Keep the Children Safe organization, having already succeeded in banning firearms, had begun to exert pressure on archery.
Old-timers, like Rio's grandfather, who had hunted with his bow back in the early twenty first century, had organized and managed to save bowhunting from a similar fate, but for some reason Rio's father had always felt that the victory had been a hollow one.
Now, as he sat watching the sun disappear behind the row of synthetic fuel factories across the draw, Rio remembered some of the stories his father used to tell about places called "forests", where there were no buildings, trees grew in unimaginable denseness, and wild things roamed freely. He thought about the game his grandfather had hunted -- animals that were now seen only at the handful of zoos scattered throughout the major population cells. Deer were not only shot, but actually taken home and eaten in those days, and he wondered what they would taste like. He was still wondering when he heard the sound again -- the cautious stirring in the leaves near the place it had come from before.
Slowly Rio pivoted and brought up his bow. It was cleverly constructed to resemble an old-fashioned longbow, but inside of the wood-grained flex-resin limbs were hidden cables that traveled through an electronic weight-reduction module in the grip. Even with a peak weight of fifteen pounds, when he pulled it he could discern no resistance.
This light weight was necessary. The small Natural Vegetation Belt in which he had been assigned to hunt was less that forty yards deep and was surrounded by rows of multiple-dwelling domes. Arrows that could travel beyond that were too dangerous -- even with the air brake arrester like the ones Rio was shooting-- since they were tipped with a toxic needle point. Of course there wasn't enough of the poison to kill a human, but it would certainly cause some temporary discomfort -- something that wasn't tolerated by the Citizens Welfare Committee.
Rio had practiced with his weapon at the range, but this was different. He had only one arrow and if he missed he was required turn the area over to the next archer in line. It might be twenty years before he won the privilege of taking his bow from the security locker at the target range and enter the Vegetation Belt again. He might even be dead before then.
Adrenaline flooded through his system as his eyes scoured the underbrush. The fading light made the shadows seem to melt together into dark, hazy forms, and Rio wondered if the sound he kept hearing was only the wind playing with the autumn leaves. Then he saw the long, gracefully curved tail behind a thin screen of bushes.
He stared for several seconds as he fought back the impulse to simply draw and shoot ahead of the twitching tail and hope for the best. At least that way he would have a chance -- something most hunters could only hope for. But before he could decide, it turned and came slowly toward him, padding on silent feet. As it emerged through the shadows a scant twenty feet away, their eyes met and with a startled cry, Rios prey leaped aside.
In that instant all the years of careful practice were forgotten, and later he could not even recall seeing his holographic sight as he swung the bow ahead of the springing shadow, flipping the safety off and savagely punching the release button on the grip. In the end, it was nothing more than good fortune that made his missile strike home.
Before his trophy could be taken in for mounting, Rio was required to stop at the Animal Control headquarters and have it properly tagged and documented. The man on duty was obviously impressed.
"Say, that's a fine one you've got there…a real beauty!"
He lifted it onto the scale and whistled as he read the weight.
"Nearly five kilograms, and at least half Siamese -- you're a hullava hunter, mister -- either that or lucky as hell."
There was an edge of envy in his voice that gave Rio an agreeable feeling of smugness.
"And I wouldn't be surprised", the inspector concluded as he removed the dead cat from the scale, "if he doesn't make the record book as one of the largest feral housecats taken in this century."