Portals & Paydays: Chapters 13 and 14

portals & paydays litrpg action looter shooter sci-fi


“How long?” I called out between ragged breaths.

Keeping up with Blackrune was no mean feat. He was skinny, but he was quick — and he had no problems leaping over the crates and sandbag emplacements between us and his destination near the camp’s main gate.

“Thirty second respawn timer!” he replied without looking back.

I cleared a stack of ammo containers, splashed down in a puddle, and half-slid back into step behind him. A second later, Blackrune crashed shoulder first through the door of a high-tech quonset hut and disappeared inside the undersized hangar-shaped building.

Hot on his heels, I ran in behind, and found him already crouching behind some kind of desk with his rifle trained at the hut’s back door.

“This the spot?” I asked, breathing heavy as I dropped beside him.

My partner pointed two fingers back toward the way we came in. “You cover that door. Shoot anything that casts a shadow.”

“Where’d they spawn?”

“Outside the walls somewhere,” Blackrune replied, his eyes locked on the rear entrance. “They probably think we took over the towers, but this is a waiting game.”

Made sense. King of the Hill meant that we’d win by holding the camp for more time than Tony and Jim. They had a head start, but the longer it took them to find us, the better off we’d be. Some consolation as I took cover behind another desk in what must have been some kind of jungle field office.

Taking a cue from Blackrune, I trained my weapon on the front door, still flapping in the breeze after he nearly bum rushed it off its hinges. If these doors were the only way in, my clanmates would have a hell of a time getting through.

Just as I found myself catching my breath, rifle sights bobbing between me and the door, I heard footsteps. Running. Not that far off.

My breath caught again, and it burned behind my ribs like I’d just sprinted another fifty yards.

A rattling noise from behind me. I looked, then cursed myself. Someone was playing at the rear door, but I couldn’t let it pull my focus.

I blinked sweat from my eyes — another bit of unwelcome realism from Immersion tech — and a shadow floated through the space between the front door and its wrecked frame. I squeezed the trigger. Bullets tore through the door, splinters flying as the force pushed it wide open.

“Go! Go! Go!” came Jim’s voice from somewhere outside.

More running. The rattling noise behind me turned into the raucous crash of a door being kicked open, the score accompanied by Blackrune’s rifle cutting loose.

Someone shouted — screamed, maybe — in the middle of it. But it wasn’t my partner, so I kept my eyes on my field of fire.

Reposition. It was like a voice in my head. Some tactical knowledge dropped on me by the game? That’s right. Basic training…the uploaded kind.

I crouch-ran to the next desk, making sure that if the enemy had spotted me, I wouldn’t be in the same place the next time they poked their head in.

Right on cue, another shadow darkened the light streaming in from the jungle ahead of me. This time I waited. Thumbed the fire selector to semi-automatic. Two breaths.

Jim’s head flashed around the threshold and I fired. Twice, right through the wall. Two new streamers of light joined the chaos, cutting in front of me like dust-filled neon tubes. Jim’s body crumpled forward, landed face first in the mud.

“Status!” a voice cut through. It took a second for me to realize it was Blackrune.

“Jim’s down over here!” I replied.

“One down over here, too.”

I heard a magazine eject on my six and I followed suit, pocketing the half-empty. Four full mags left, so no point in playing the counting game with rounds.

Thirty seconds to respawn, and there was no way Jim and Tony would rush the doors again.

“We should move!” I said.

“We will,” Blackrune called back, “but not yet. Go prone.”

I’ll bet he was thinking what I was thinking. If I were the enemy, I’d just stand outside and empty a couple of magazines into the hut. Let penetration do the work.

I pressed myself to the floor, trying my best to become one with the ground. Behind me, Blackrun low-crawled to the quonset hut’s wall. Made sense — they probably wouldn’t spray-and-pray that close to the edge of the building.

An anxious thought crept in. The quonset hut’s half-tube shape featured six windows. Each of them narrow and high up. Hard to see through from outside, but if someone really wanted to climb in…

The least of my worries, I realized, as a frag grenade landed — “tink, tink” — and rolled between me and Blackrune. While I was still wondering where the hell it came from, my partner lunged at it, grabbed the little black orb, and hurled it through the gaping hole where the back door used to be.

Another shout — this time it sounded profoundly confused — punctuated by an ear-shredding explosion. Besides the ringing in my ears, there wasn’t much but silence left in its wake.

Blackrune rolled back onto his stomach like he knew every move in the book, then flashed me a quick thumbs up. For the first time, I realized he was pretty damn good. Not just at the knowing, but the doing.

I grinned. Couldn’t help it. Thanks to this guy — this stranger, really — we weren’t just gonna pass the initiation. We were gonna absolutely destroy it. That was crystal clear, undeniable. Cemented into my brain.

Then someone cut loose with a heavy machine gun.



Bullets ripped through the quonset hut’s composite shell like it was paper. My ears split with something akin to a canvas bag being ripped in half — the rapid-fire crackle of death breaking the sound barrier over our heads.

In that split second, all I could think was that I was in this game for loot and leaderboards — we all were — so why was I laying on the floor while my own friends hosed down the building with hot lead?

Stupidity. Asshattery. And I couldn’t even be sure who to blame it on. Blackrune? Jim? At least the former was proving he knew his way around the game.

Finally, the opening salvo of machine gun fire died down enough that I could rotate and get a look at my teammate. Blackrune was still pressed into the space where the wall met the floor, surrounded by fresh bullet holes and whirling dust, but no worse for wear.

“Counterattack?” I asked him, trying to pull off that oxymoronic combination of a shout and a whisper.

He shook his head, three stiff and mechanical jerks, then pointed back at the door.

I didn’t know if he wanted me to keep watching it, or to run out of it screaming and shooting. Since the second option sounded horrible, I stayed prone with my sights on the doorway.

The realization that things had gotten really quiet crept in between ragged breaths.

I could hear the mosquitoes again, backed up by the creaking hinges of the door hanging free ten meters ahead of me. No footfalls. No whispers.

Riding out the clock was our plan. But how did that work when both teams were inside the camp? Shit. I didn’t know how King of the Hill worked in Meta Mercs, any more than I knew most things.

Had to trust Blackrune…

A subtle noise made me flinch. A crunching twig or something, and not far away. If not for the dread silence, I’d have never been able to hear it.

Leveling my rifle, I waited to see another shadow telegraphing the enemy’s intent to rush the door.

From beyond the wall, another muffled sound — “ting, ting, ting” — like someone playing with a tiny spring.

That freaked me out more than the gunfire. I wanted to turn around on my elbows, ask Blackrune if he heard it…

Thud, right in front of me. Another frag grenade struck and rolled two inches from my hand. Then the sound of two more hitting the floor at my six.

“Shit!” Blackrune yelled, but I was already executing my version of his heroic throwback maneuver.

Smoking grenade in hand, I flopped up like a fish to gain enough leverage to throw. The warm metal ball left my hand, crossed the threshold out of the quonset hut.

Then everything went dark.

Burning pain rolled in behind the blackout. Tiny pin pricks in my muscles came next. I’m not sure if I was imagining the sound of three frags exploding, or if it was being piped into my brain. Everything hurt too much to care either way.

I wanted the darkness to go away so I could look down at my body, make sure the singed flesh wasn’t still there. I wanted to drop out of Immersion and make sure I wasn’t actually bleeding or burning. I wanted to scream.

None of it happened, and not knowing why just pissed me off more. Maybe the tech was blocking my inputs since it was busy loading up the respawn interface. It appeared slowly, like a TV screen being pushed out of a smoke-filled room.

The map of Tropic Heat. Three potential spawn points.

“Go with point ‘B’,” a voice came from nowhere. Blackrune. “I have an idea.”

I touched the point on the map marked with a glowing ‘B’. ‘B’ for ‘bullshit’. ‘B’ for ‘bash Jim’s face in’.

The twelve remaining seconds counted down over the floating map, then the vignette and its surround of darkness gave way to swaying green leaves and mud. Back in the jungle — the simulation inside a simulation.

Bugs, the earthy aroma of peat, and the blazing sun overhead. I put it all out of my mind, cycled my rifle’s charging handle to chamber a round. Straight ahead, twenty yards past the brush, then through another twenty of open ground, Blackrune pressed himself against the camp’s outer wall.

He held his finger to his lips in the ‘shush’ gesture that I had to squint to confirm thanks to the distance, then waved me toward him.

I picked my way through the ferns and fallen branches carefully, quietly. A light mist had started drifting down from the sky, coating everything in beads of warm water. Just enough rain to lower the comfort level another notch, but not enough to hide any noises I might make.

At the edge of the brush, my pulse amped up. Knowing that I had to cross that clearing, I scanned along the camp’s walls and towers with a diligent eye. No foliage, no cover. Purpose-built to cut down anyone who tried to get close.

Seeing nothing, I broke into a sprint. Ten yards. Fifteen.

“All good?” Blackrune asked, slapping my shoulder as I skidded to a stop in the wall’s shadow.

“Yeah, all good. Frags get you?”

He smirked. “Frags brought down the rest of the quonset hut. We didn’t have much of a chance.”

“No doubt,” I said. “You got another secret entrance?”

“Nope. Dynamic entry this time.”

I tilted my head.

“Shock and awe,” he added, catching my expression. “Go in fast, loud, and angry.”

“I’m down for that,” I said, grinning. A callback to the good ol’ days of first-person shooters. When combat was about as real as a cardboard unicorn and everyone just ran around like heavily-armed ants with twitchy fingers.

“Cool, follow,” Blackrune said, creeping along the wall toward the main gate. “We sneak first, button hook through the gate and take cover behind the guardhouse.”

“When does the ‘shock and awe’ come in?”

Blackrune stopped at the edge of the gate, flicked his head past the threshold to peek inside.

“After I’m sure they’re in the building I think they’re in,” he answered. “Let’s move.”

He rolled around the edge of the gate, and I followed. There was a nice gap between the wall and the guardhouse waiting for us inside.

“I figure they took the second quonset hut,” my teammate said, pointing across the camp.

Just across the clear central yard, a near-perfect, Ouroboros-gray quonset hut sat beside its half-cylinder twin — now in complete, smoking ruin. Our bodies would be buried in that rubble, if they hadn’t despawned shortly after we died.

“You think they’re stealing our play?” I asked, though it was actually Blackrune’s play they were copying.

He nodded. They knew it was a good hide, and chances were pretty solid that we were too new to afford frags, flashbangs…or anything better than a crowbar.

“Without an MG, we can’t really spray the thing down with bullets,” Blackrune chimed in. It’s like he was reading my mind. “So we breach and clear.”

I knew how easy it was to shoot someone coming in through the door, so that didn’t sound ideal. But Blackrune had a whole plan figured out, using the lack of visibility into the quonset hut to our advantage.

He grabbed a heavy ammo crate and stood ten feet from the front door. I went to the back. After he chucked the crate, hopefully busting the door and drawing their fire, I would kick in the rear entrance, storm through, and take ‘em out.

Without explosives, it seemed like the best idea on the table. So I stood there, ready to kick, waiting for the crash of an ammo can hitting the other door. Then it came, and so did a lot of gunfire — but not in my direction.

I lunged forward, kicked, and rushed in.

Jim and Tony were down in seconds. They didn’t even see me come in.

Blackrune sprinted through the busted front door and slid down beside Jim’s double-tapped corpse. He managed to pull two grenades off him before the bodies despawned.

I chuckled. Another rule that I hadn’t been briefed on.

“Sweet,” Blackrune said, holding up a frag in each hand. “You ready to finish this thing?”

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