Bitter 422

Britta watched as the dust cloud thundering towards her transformed into riders on horseback. It wasn’t quite an army, although they were in uniform and fully geared for war, it looked like.

It was the same uniform as the bandits. She seemed to recall they had told her about being in the army in their previous incarnation. Deserters, if she wasn’t mistaken. Judging by how they were lying flat in a ditch, that part of their backstory hadn’t been changed.

There were around a dozen soldiers riding towards her and Donald. They seemed in a big hurry to get somewhere, and showed no signs of slowing. Britta edged Donald over to the side of the road so they weren’t trampled.

As the group of riders got closer, the lead man — they were all human as far as Britta could see — raised a hand, and the entire company came to halt with cries of  Whoah and Easy and various other generic commands from old westerns.

It was impressive how quickly they were able to come to a complete stop. The horses were steaming as the sweat dried off them.

The leader leaned down to stare at Britta. He had a golden handlebar moustache that covered most of his mouth, so his words seemed to ripple out of his facial hair.

He touched the curved brim of his helmet. “Good morning, miss.” He had a surprisingly high-pitched voice. “Have you seen any wayward men in these parts? They’d be wearing similar outfits to these.” He brushed the dust off the front of his jacket.

It wasn’t a particularly memorable uniform. Grey with some simple yellow stitching, some dull silver button, a few stripes down the arms. But uniforms weren’t about standing out, they were made to be seen in groups. Twelve of the same outfits made a strong statement. These men were together.

“I don’t think so,” said Britta. “Why? Are they lost?”

Why was she lying? It wasn’t like she had anything to gain by protecting the bandits lying flat on their stomachs a little to her left. Then again, she didn’t have much to gain from turning them in, either.

“No, not lost. They are the worst kind of scum, miss. They are deserters, miss, deserters.” He said it with a sneer. One of the men behind him turned his head and spat. Then two others behind that one did the same, in complete sync with each other.

Britta smiled. It was little things like that which broke the illusion. Nothing said ‘game’ like NPCs doing the exact same action at the exact same time.

“Are you with the Empire?” Britta asked.

“Absolutely. Captain Gooley, at your service.” He touched his brim again. There was something a bit awkward about the way these NPCs moved. It felt repetitive.

“Gooley?” It sounded like a joke name.

“That’s right. You’ve heard of Gooley’s Marauders, no doubt.”

Britta didn’t answer. Captain Gooley didn’t seem to need one.

“Is there a war going on?” she asked.

“There is, there is indeed,” said Gooley. “Or there will be soon. You can smell it in the air.” He took a deep breath and his moustache was drawn into his mouth before wafting out again. “That’s why we need every man to do his duty. Including those who would rather shirk. I can’t abide a shirker.”

Britta nodded like she couldn’t either. She wasn’t entirely sure what shirker was, but it sounded like it would be unpleasant to witness one in action.

“Good luck, then. I hope you find them.”

“There is a reward for information leading to the capture of any deserters,” said Gooley, like he’d rehearsed it.

“What kind of reward? Money?”

“Money, yes. Also, the reward of knowing you’ve done the right thing. You’ll improve your character.”

It wasn’t clear if he meant it in the spiritual sense, or if he meant she’d get experience points to literally improve her character. She only needed two more to get to Level 5. She could simply point and go, “Hold on, what’s that over there in the grass,” with a surprised look on her face, and she could be choosing a new spell a few minutes later.

She kept her hands by her side. These soldiers hadn’t struck her as the type to trust. Even if they gave her the reward, what would they want from her next? She didn’t want to get stuck in some tedious quest chain.

It wasn’t like she was choosing one side over the other. She didn’t expect to get any kudos for not snitching. Her attempt at playing it cool with N-28 had taught her not to expect a pat on the back for her actions. That had cost her a decent weapon, this could get her arrested and thrown in prison for aiding and abetting — although she would just teleport out again.

“I’ll keep an eye out,” she said.

“If you want to sign here, we can make you an official bounty hunter.” He pulled out a rolled up piece of paper and held it out. “We have an excellent rewards program.”

Now he was making t sound like getting a supermarket loyalty card.

A screen appeared in front of Britta.

Join the Imperial Army bounty hunters. Tiered rewards.

There was a list of rewards depending on how many people you brought in. For your first deserter you got 5 XP and the title ‘Imperial Scout.’ It was a fairly cool title Britta could see players wanting. For capturing a hundred, you got 10,000 XP and got to call yourself ‘Imperial Hunt Master.’ Very grand. It didn’t say, but she imagined there would be other bonuses that came with the title, or some kind of clothing. A special hat, maybe.

She could hand in three fugitives right now. That would get her the first three rewards, totalling 75 XP. More than enough to level up. And she would be an ‘Imperial Sniffer’. She didn’t much like that.

Still, it was points on the board that counted, as Dad was fond of saying for no reason. There was a Yes and No button to choose from. She looked down from the corner of her eye. The three bandits were vigorously shaking their heads at her, which wasn’t surprising. But the lizardman was also pinching his scaly fingers next to his eye. Look closer?

She looked at the screen. It was pretty straightforward. No hidden clauses. She looked at Captain Gooley, holding out the piece of paper. She took it from him, and opened it.

The writing was scratchy and hard to make out. It was very different to what was on her screen. If she had agreed to become a bounty hunter, she would be joining the Imperial army as a private.

“No thanks,” she said, handing it back.

The captain looked down at her, an unpleasant smile on his lips. “Why don’t you have a think about it?”

Britta looked at her screen. The two options had gone from Yes and No, to Yes and ‘Offend Captain Gooley.’

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