Portals & Paydays: Chapters 10-12

portals & paydays litrpg action looter shooter sci-fi


Yo, Silkies!

Just want to thank all of you for sticking around even though my Meta Mercs adventure is getting off to a rough start.

If you were on the stream when I got eaten by a dire lion, I will tell you that it sucks a lot worse than it looks. I don’t know why the devs felt like they had to make the Haptics feel like real animal bites an’ shit, but they nailed it.

That’s not the suckiest turd that your pal Silky has stepped in, though. I teamed up with another noob named Blackrune, and there were some friendly fire issues with a pretty big Clan.

Well, the biggest Clan. Afterlife. You heard of ‘em? I hadn’t, but now I owe them because I wanted to keep them from getting Blackrune banned from the game.

Speaking of…here’s Blackrune. Back from his friendly-fire lockout. Wave to the people, bud. Woot,woot! See how you’re not banned? That means you owe me big time.

He says no problem. But we still have to get through the initiation. So, I wouldn’t say there’s no problem.

I met Blackrune outside the common barracks about twelve hours after he died. Bans can be avoided or appealed, but the game is pretty strict on complete lockouts when it comes to friendly fire in the safe zone.

“So, your clanmates said I can join,” he asked, now wearing the Ouroboros starting gear instead of his guard uniform, “but we both have to get hazed?”

“That’s what I said.”

Blackrune’s eyebrow arched. “Even though you’re already a member?”

“It’s my punishment for getting involved and pissing off Afterlife, I guess.”

His shrug told me the questions were over, but since he was walking beside me without a helmet — as most players did in the hub — his expression was clear.

I’m sure that had a lot to do with either guilt or gratitude. In Blackrune’s eyes, I’d done him a kindness, come to his rescue. He didn’t understand why I needed to be punished in the first place.

But I saw how the leader of Afterlife looked at Blackrune’s corpse. And how he looked at me, a worthless, low-level player in a ‘Clan’ that couldn’t even fill a raid roster. I drew the wrong kind of attention, so it all made sense.


I expected our initiation to take place on the other side of a portal, but Jim made us fully aware of what a waste of resources that would be. Portal raids involved time locks, yes, but they could also require an outlay of credits or even precious faction points.

The latter were earned by every player in Ouroboros and put into a shared pool. The controlling Clan — now I was well aware of their name — could use faction points to upgrade the Hub, apply world bonuses, or unlock special portals. While nothing stopped other players from using these points on their own, spending more than you earned was…heavily frowned upon.

From what Tony had told me, players have been blacklisted and worse for getting greedy with the points.

“We’re doing this in the training center,” Jim explained, holding up an arm to showcase the huge, cube-shaped building near the barracks.

Whereas the barracks looked Brutalist and severe — all concrete, square windows, and straight lines — the training center was a windowless, gray block with a single red double-door for access.

“We’re taking you into an instance that simulates a rainforest,” he continued. “Tony and I will be defending a small encampment in the center of the map.” He pointed first at me, then at Blackrune. “You two have spawn points outside the perimeter. Your initiation is to run at least ten attacks within thirty minutes.”

Blackrune raised his hand. He looked underprepared in the gray jumpsuit and thin flak jacket that were issued to all new players. “That’s ‘Tropic Heat’ — a King of the Hill map, right?”

Jim hesitated. “Yeah.”

“So, what if we overtake the camp and hold it?”

Tony and Jim exchanged glances, then shrugs.

“Sure. You pass your initiation,” Tony responded. “But don’t count on that. Make your ten assaults.”

My eyes snapped open as the purpose behind the strange rule clicked into place.

“Wait,” I said, “so you’re looking for each of us to get killed ten times? That’s the real test here?”

Jim smirked. “Pretty much. Hell, if you want to make it easy, you can just walk up ten times and we’ll frag you.”

“But don’t do that, bro,” Tony cut in. “That’s fucked up. At least try.”

Strange, but it didn’t seem like Tony was on board with the initiation at all. Too much of a sadistic edge, I’d guess. But from the look on Jim’s face, he must have thought he was some kind of hazing genius.

“I’m guessing the Haptics are on?”

Jim nodded. “Level three, just like in the portal.”

“Oh, come on,” I said, palms up in front of me. “I get that it’s an initiation, but this is more like torture. Line up and get shot?”

At that moment I remembered why I didn’t much like Jim. Technically, he was more Tony’s friend than mine. We’d bonded over countless hours of gaming, sure, but given enough time he would always circle around and show his ass.

Now, he was really showing it. A big, red, baboon ass of poor friendship.

It wasn’t sitting right, but just as I turned to Blackrune to tell him he could opt out, my new buddy stepped forward, puffed out his chest, and said, “Let’s get it over with.”

For a guy who just got shot in the head less than a day ago, he didn’t look scared at all.


The training center was set up much like the portal chamber. Through the main entrance, the four of us filed into a staging area that looked like a locker room from any generic cop show, touched our hands to our lockers, and geared up using the inventory UI.

Closing out the screen, I peered out from under my helmet at a partner who clearly didn’t have friends handing out higher-level drops. Blackrune’s full set of newb gear — including the standard-issue assault rifle — didn’t inspire confidence.

Then again, I had seen him kill someone with that rifle. It was an accident, sure, but evidence enough that he knew how to put a lethal bullet into a target.

Jim and Tony were, of course, wearing their latest and greatest — the body armor and weapons that had replaced the hand-me-downs they’d lavished on me. I hadn’t picked up enough specs in Meta Mercs to know exactly what I was looking at, but appearances made it clear that both of them decided to go with precision rifles of some kind. Long barrels, big scopes, small magazines. 

Yeah, they were convinced killing us would be like plinking away at metal duckies in a carnival game. 

“All set?” Jim asked with a concerning level of eagerness in his voice. He also didn’t wait for either Blackrune or me to answer. “We go in first. When the doorway changes color, you go in and pop up in the attacking team’s spawn point.”

I cocked my head. “I assume you know exactly where that is, right?”

 “Actually, there’s three,” Tony said. “You can pick which one you spawn at. But we set it up so you can’t change it when you die, so pick a good one.”

Jim was already stepping through the blue, glowing doorway that marked the entrance to the instanced PvP arena. And that’s what it was, despite being part of the training center. Just a glorified deathmatch map.

He stepped through, and Tony followed after giving me and my partner a solemn nod. As soon as his bootheel disappeared into the blue rectangle, the entire door color-shifted. The calm, welcoming entrance was now an angry warning light.

“That’s us,” I said, trying to look resolute as I strode toward the menacing, red glow.

Blackrune slapped his hand against my sleeve. “Hold up. We have to be smart about this.”

“Too late.” 

“Not at all,” he continued, completely sidestepping my sarcasm. “They took sniper rifles.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, I guess Jim wanted to see our faces better when he picks us off like idiots.”

“Tropic Heat is like…a tower defense map. The capture point is inside a camp with two guard towers. With one man in each tower, they get sightlines all around the camp.”

“You said it was a jungle.”

“It is, but the approach is all flat and open. For like two hundred meters in every direction.”

That explained their weapon selection. Considering their time spent in-game, and their high ground advantage, picking us off would be easy. Maybe Jim was right, and strolling up ten times to catch our bullets would be the best solution.

“So, how the hell do we play that smart?” I asked.

“First of all, we know where they’re going to be. One man in each tower.”

I nodded. “That’s the only way they’d be sure to see us, right?”

“Right! Already, that tells us they’re split up,” Blackrune said, his expression showing more determination with every word. It was like watching a tangerine turn into a cannonball. “And I’m guessing they don’t know there are secret entrances to the camp.”

Now I was grinning, too. “Or they don’t expect us to know. Hell, they know me pretty well, and I wouldn’t know that unless they told me.”

“Oh, I know,” Blackrune said. “I had months to study this game before I could afford the hardware.”

Hm. I might have met the one person who’d spent more time reading guides than Jim. And that was an education that could actually prove useful during this sadistic joke of an initiation.

“Tight,” I said, slapping him on the back. “You lead the way.”


I stuck close behind Blackrune, keeping my head down as much to avoid branches and giant mosquitoes as to avoid bullets. Not that anyone was shooting at us — yet — but the foliage was so dense, it seemed like Jim or Tony could be waiting right around every broad-leafed bush. 

My partner looked at me over his shoulder. “There isn’t much of a trail here, so a lot of new players miss this.”

Good thing I was with a new player who memorized maps and knew exactly which spawn point to pick when we stepped through the angry red door.

“We push through this a ways,” he continued, “then find a ditch. Follow the ditch to a drain pipe.”

I smirked. “Good old drain pipes. Where would map designers be without that chestnut?”

“Hey, I welcome the cliche,” Blackrune said, chuckling. 

We pressed on, trying like hell to step lightly so we didn’t sound like a herd of rhinos charging through the underbrush.

Before long, we found the ditch and traced it toward the center of the map. Just as Blackrune had said, it led us to a drainage grate big enough for us to crawl through. He pulled a flat crowbar from under his chintzy flak jacket and pried the grate away with a single, solid pull.

“Is that standard issue?” I asked him as he stashed the tool back under his armor.

“Nah, just the only thing I could afford with the fifteen credits I earned on guard duty.”

I almost said something about how surprising it was they paid him at all, but luckily the words didn’t form. Clearing my throat, I decided that praising the good luck of having it would play better.

“No doubt,” Blackrune said like an afterthought. His cannonball expression was hardening again, and watching him crawl into the dark, wet drainpipe, I could see he was all in. Intense. Ready to show the Rat Kings how badly a fucked up initiation can turn against you.

Climbing into the pipe behind him, that intensity was building in me, too. Would we capture the camp and win, legit? Probably not. But we weren’t going to march ourselves into the line of fire, either.

Just getting a couple of clean kills on Jim would make me feel a thousand times better. And crawling through the mud, banging my knees on the corrugated metal pipe, was damn sure worth the opportunity.


The last fifty feet of the drain pipe was complete darkness. Muddy darkness that smelled like rotting plants and something worse.

When we reached a small circle of light at the far end, Blackrune whispered that we should both exit as quickly and quietly as possible. According to the strategy guide in his head, if they saw him exit the tunnel, Jim or Tony would just hurl a grenade in, so there was no point in me staying behind while he cleared the egress.

Sounded good to me, since I had a natural aversion to being inside tight spaces filled with fire and shrapnel.

“This opens up into a pit near the camp latrines,” he added. “It won’t be…nice.”

I nodded, but doubted he could see the gesture. Even with the circle of light in front of him, his head and shoulders were little more than rim-lit shadows.

He crawled into the daylight, then went to one knee with his weapon ready — his boots creating more subtle squishing noises than I cared to hear. But I was out in the tropical sunlight right behind him. Both of our uniforms were now considerably more brown than gray, but we blended well with the dugout midden.

Beyond the pit’s rim, some of the camp’s features stood like the backdrop of a weird, sci-fi terrarium. Walls made from stacked concrete barriers, quick-deploy quonset huts, and Ouroboros-marked polymer crates sat in stacks, all surrounded by giant ferns and winding vines.

My eyes were quickly drawn to the tallest structure in sight. A tower, built like a scissor lift for easy deployment, with Tony in the canopied copula at the top — his back to us, and his eye glued to his rifle’s scope.

“Cover him,” Blackrune whispered before crouch walking out of the midden toward the camp’s far corner. “They get one chance to surrender, okay?”

I agreed.

That meant I wouldn’t get the first shot at Jim, but I was too exhilarated by having any chance of survival at all to care. Keeping my heart rate steady was a challenge, and after finding a nice hide behind a stack of gray crates, even holding my sight over Tony’s back felt like trying to keep a swinging pendulum from moving.

Now, out of the pit, I could also see Jim’s tower. About fifty meters away, butted up against the far concrete wall, with a stealthy, gunk-covered Blackrune creeping up beside it. Good thing I didn’t have to cover Jim, too — with my excitement, there’s no way I could make the shot from here.

Above me, Tony was still sweeping the treeline through his scope. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear him speaking. Probably complaining to Jim over coms about us hiding. I glanced at Blackrune, made eye contact, and nodded.

He held up his left hand, rifle still trained on the completely oblivious Jim, and counted down from three with his fingers.

Finishing the count, he snapped back into his firing stance like a spring-loaded trap. Blackrune’s voice boomed across the camp, drowning out the persistent buzzing of flies and distant squawks of birds: “Drop the rifles, we got you both locked down!”

I couldn’t see Jim’s reaction, but through my sights I could tell that Tony nearly crapped his upgraded trousers.

“Don’t move, Tony,” I called up, “you’re dead to rights, my man!”

“You scared the shit out of me, Silky,” he yelled back, half-smiling and leaning his rifle against the inside of the guard tower’s cupola. “Nice moves, though!”

Still holding my sights on him, I chuckled, but it faded fast when some back-and-forth shouting broke out from Blackrune’s side. It sounded like Jim wasn’t being as cool about the sneak attack.

“Just drop it!” I heard my partner shouting, his stance tense, but unwavering.

Jim yelled something else, then Blackrune cracked off three rounds from his assault rifle, and my heart jumped inside my ribs.

The surrounding movement of swaying trees and buzzing insects slowed down, and a throbbing, ringing sound filled up my head. But it wasn’t from the gunfire — the sound was coming from inside my skull.

Ignoring it, or trying to, I looked back at Tony.

He was just as confused as I felt, glancing from the other tower and back to me like he was waiting for me to tell him what to do. Then his hand jerked toward the sidearm in his thigh holster.

I squeezed my trigger twice. Then, recentering my sights on Tony’s chest, two more times. The ringing sound amplified, and it turned into a flood of other sensations. Copper in my mouth, cordite in my nose.

Tony toppled forward and fell thirty feet to the ground in front of me with an awful crunch of dislocating joints and clattering hardware.

“Silky!” Blackrune yelled, but my eyes stayed fixed on the crumpled remains of my friend. “Jim’s down!”

I blinked. Blood pooled around Tony.

“Hey! Silky! Jim’s down! You okay?!”

Filling my lungs with breath for the first time since pulling the trigger, I called back, “Yup. Got Tony.”

He’s dead. Really dead. But worse, the way he fell made him look like a mosquito that was too slow to avoid a windshield.

Running footsteps came to a skidding halt next to me. Blackrune smacked my shoulder, but I still couldn’t turn my head to look at him.

“They’ll be back in like thirty seconds,” he added. “We gotta be ready!”

I blinked again. “Huh?”

“Respawns, buddy! They’re coming back!”

Staring at Tony, I couldn’t get my brain to understand how someone could come back from that.

It’s just a game. I said it again, inside, mixed with the throbbing ringing noise that reminded me of rushing water. Drowning water.

Then Blackrune shoved me, hard, and I had to break from my fixation to stop from falling over.

“Get it together,” he growled, pointing to Tony, “or you’re gonna look like that in about fifteen seconds!”

For what it was worth, that was a good motivator. I took the opportunity to change magazines — something different to look at, think about — slapped the bolt release on my rifle, and followed Blackrune at a sprint.

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