Portals & Paydays: Chapters 4-6

portals & paydays litrpg action looter shooter sci-fi


“Normally we’d just gear up in the staging area leading to the portal room,” Tony explained as we walked, “but inventory management is easier in the barracks.”

I stayed right on his heels as he weaved through clusters of players — some of them standing around chatting; others fast-stepping it to their next adventure, dripping in combat gear. The vast majority wore the familiar charcoal gray with glowing accents that denoted Ouroboros, but the occasional orange helmet or tiger-striped rifle told me which players had scored a rare Drop or purchased a custom skin.

Group sizes varied as much as the outfits. Plenty of players moved around in groups of two or three, but the hardcore clans were impossible to miss. They were hanging out in crowds of twenty or more, mostly decked out in fancy rare Drops and limited edition skins. They had what Tony, Jim, and I called the “chiropractor look” — always turning heads.

When we finally reached the barracks — one of the chunky buildings in the center of the Hub’s domed circle — we entered through a wide, automatic door into a fairly plain hallway.

A few paces down, Tony sidled up to a smaller door and waved his hand over the security terminal inset in the wall beside it. After a few flashing lights and beeps, it wooshed open, and Tony led me inside.
“This is our private quarters,” Tony said, holding up his arms like a tour guide.

It was like stepping into a small cabin in some kind of weird sci-fi summer camp. The room had two military-style bunks on either side, with four tall lockers taking up the entire wall between them. Aside from a tiny desk with a powered-down terminal of some kind, there wasn’t room for other furniture.

There was wall space above the desk, but Tony and Jim had already gone to work filling that up with framed medals, posters, and screengrab photographs of various off-world locations.

“Damn,” I said, reading the plaque beneath the closest hanging medal, “you guys have been busy.” The plaque read: ‘100 KILLS IN A SINGLE RAID – AWARDED TO CAPN_JIM’

Tony chuckled. “Don’t be too impressed. These are all low-level achievements. I prefer the posters, actually. We get them as Special Assignment bonus rewards sometimes.”

My eyes moved to a colorful poster stylized after an old travel ad. It said: ‘VISIT SUNNY BK-236!’ with a blocky rendition of a mushroom cloud over a tropical beach.

“Weird,” I mumbled.

“That one’s from last week’s event portal. BK-236 was a beach planet. Like ninety-percent oceans or something. And at the end of the event, Ouroboros sent nukes to the other side and detonated ‘em.”

I looked at my clanmate, raising my eyebrows. “That’s dark.”

“Story was that they didn’t want the other corporations finding that one and getting its resources. Guess we found something worthwhile there.” He shrugged. “That’s all lore and backstory though. Some game dev’s fiction. I was just there to shoot giant lobster aliens.”

I laughed. Being stuck for so long with only reviews and streams, I was all too familiar with the many mind-blowing qualities of the game, and enemy variety was one of them. The constant addition of new portal destinations meant nearly limitless environments to raid, and with every new location, there were new Exos — the Meta Merc term for any lifeform that didn’t come from Earth.

“Alright,” Tony said, pointing at my face. “More deets later. Gotta get you set up.”

Words appeared in my line of sight, and I realized Tony was issuing in-game commands with his fingertip, not just being weird.

You’ve received an invitation to join the clan The Rat Kings. Accept?

The words, appearing as glowing white letters in some sort of AR overlay, came with a pair of buttons to interact with. I stuck out my hand and pressed ‘YES’.

Anthony nodded. “Cool. Now this room is your home quarters, too. We rented the one with four slots for a reason.”

He flicked his finger one last time in my direction.

Group invite from SkywalkerTony. Accept?

I tapped my confirmation and the words disappeared just in time to see Tony press his hand against the locker marked with his name, then to the third locker which now had ‘SilkyKD’ emblazoned on the door.

More words scrolled in front of my eyes:

Item Transfer:
Ouroboros PK-11 Carbine
MercTec PK-11 Magazine, 42 round (x7)
HSLD ‘Bulwark’ Plate Carrier, Medium
Ouroboros Standard Issue Ballistic Helmet
Camber Custom 1911 Automatic Pistol
Camber Custom 1911 Magazine, 8 round (x3)

Wardrobe Transfer:
Ouroboros Tactical Pants, Basic
HSLD ‘TactiCool’ Combat Shirt
Foakley ‘Awful Stomper’ Boots

“This is enough to get you started,” Tony said. “And a hell of a lot better than the noob gear you get after the tutorial missions.”

I grinned. “Sweet, now how do I use it?”

“Put your hand on your locker for inventory control. Just swap everything I gave you into your active inventory, then equip all of it in the right slots.”

Touching my locker replaced my entire field of vision with a gridded inventory screen. I could peruse the items Tony had sent me, even check details spec sheets, but there was no time. I just slid everything into my worn item slots and pulled my hand back.

When the inventory screen popped away, I was completely dressed for battle, right down to the assault rifle hanging in front of my chest on a three-point sling. My avatar’s civilian shirt and pants were replaced with dark gray cargo pants and a rugged, long-sleeve black shirt with the Ouroboros ‘O’ symbol watermarked like a camouflage pattern in shades of gray and dark blue.

“All these items are modded out,” Tony said. “Stuff Jim and I bought and used during our first couple of weeks. That handgun is from the Historic Weapons event, even.”

I touched the 1911 in the holster built into the chest of my plate carrier. Below the hefty handgun, a row of pouches held six rifle magazines and two for the pistol. Of course, right in the center of my chest was a brick-like electronic device, complete with a blue glowing circle.

I groaned.

“Is my helmet glowing, too?” I asked Tony, smacking the Aramid bucket riding low over my eyes and ears. “Where’s the mirror?”

Tony slapped my arm. “No time, bro. We’ve got like four minutes to get to the portal.”

Vanity would have to wait. I was geared up, amped up, and ready to blast some Exos.

We booked out of the barracks building and I followed Tony through the crowds toward the outer rim of the Hub’s dome. If nothing else, the goofy glowing blue circle on the back of his body armor made it easy to keep track of him as we ran. The bouncing light was almost hypnotic.

Not that I needed anything making me feel tired at that point. A minute in, and I was already struggling for breath. It was like the game knew I was an out of shape graphic artist — then I remembered the medical scans.

They wouldn’t base a character’s starting stats on their real physiology, would they? Nah. I would have read that somewhere. Or the boys would have told me.

Still, running sucked just as much in Immersion as it did in real life. To distract myself from the burning lungs and cramping legs, I tried to catch glimpses of the other Big O players as we ran past them. I figured seeing some cool gear would inspire me, but the only thing catching my eye was sideways glances, smirks, and at least three people stopping to point in our direction.

I thought they were making fun of us, but Tony looked back at me, smiling as wide as the Cheshire cat. Not the look of someone being openly mocked, so I took his cue and ignored the feeling.

When we finally reached the entrance to a portal chamber, Jim was waiting, pointing at his watch.

“I hope you gave him the full tutorial, Tony,” he growled, his face set and serious. “We have to jump now.”



This is so sick, I just had to say something. Even though I’m out of breath from running. Can you pick up on that? Streaming from inside is weird…

The Immersion hardware for Meta Mercs is definitely not a one-way street. I mean, we all knew it could make us feel sensations and pain and all that, but I had no idea it could put memories into my head!

I didn’t realize it until Tony hooked me up with this assault rifle. You’d think I’d need some lessons on how to use it right? It’s not like old school games where you just pick a weapon up and then…boom…point and click your way to shooting people then hit ‘R’ to reload.

Nope! It’s real! It has a trigger, a charging handle, a bolt catch release…and here’s the crazy part. I know what they’re all called and how to use ‘em! When we got to Jim, I freaked out about it. “How the hell do I know what an ‘immediate action drill’ is?” I asked, because I suddenly knew how to clear a jam on a rifle that I’d never seen in my life — along with every other basic part of using it.

It’s because of my character’s base level in Firearms Handling. The devs were smart enough to know that people wouldn’t want to stumble into a realistic shooting match with zero knowledge of guns. Some people go their whole lives without seeing a real one, much less using one, right? So, they like…implant the operating manual right into our brains. So sick.

Anyway…Jim’s looking pissed and the timer’s ticking. Let’s party!


“Done dickin’ around with your ten viewers, man?” Jim asked me with a pointed look.

“It’s not ten!” I grinned. “It’s eight.”

Both Jim and Tony laughed at that one. I had no misconceptions — streaming was competitive. I just did it for kicks. My handful of regular viewers liked that I never studied a game before playing it for the first time.

My approach to Meta Mercs was no different. I’d seen a few videos and listened to the boys talk about the game a few times, but other than that, I liked to go in blind.

And now I was about to take that philosophy to its highest level by jumping completely green into the circular portal generator directly ahead. It was a ring of metal, like most sci-fi portal machines, but I could see right through it like a window. No shimmers, no particle effects. Just a clear view into an open grassland under a light purple sky.

My two clanmates stepped between me and the portal, cutting two impressive silhouettes. They’d both touched the lockers in the staging part of the portal chamber to finish gearing up with helmets, refilled ammo, and special items.

“Let’s kick some ass!” Jim shouted, bolting into a run.

Tony slapped my shoulder and took off after him. After watching them both stride through the portal like it was no big deal, I followed.

Crossing the threshold didn’t tingle or make me dizzy like I thought it would. The only disorientation came from the change in scenery. One second, I was in a cold, sterile room. The next, I was in the middle of a vast savannah on some alien planet.

The air smelled sweat and natural, untouched by any kind of pollution. The sounds around me were just as pure — the low howl of a breeze and a very distant animal call that reminded me of a crow.

I turned around just in time to see the round window back to the Hub blink away. Behind me, Jim and Tony racked the actions on their rifles.

“Should I open up my Operation Profile?” I asked, pulling by my own rifle’s charging handle and flicking the safety on. Both came like reflex actions.

“Don’t bother,” Tony said.

“No time for it now,” Jim added. “We’ve got twenty minutes on-world, then we have to be back here to catch the portal out.”

Tony looked at me and shrugged, but since his helmet had a full face mask, I wasn’t sure how to take it. Jim began jogging toward the horizon before I could ask.

Tony and I followed suit and were hot on his heels. A hundred yards of running through knee-high yellow grass had me thinking that the raid’s level scaling also did something to boost my endurance. I wasn’t as winded as when I ran through the Hub.

Still, I was grateful when Jim lowered himself into a running crouch, then ducked low in the grass along a low rise in the terrain. Tony and I fell in on either side of him. I was making extra effort to stay low and unseen by whatever might be ahead.

Peering through the yellow blades, I spotted why he’d stopped us. A wide, low tree sat in the distance alongside a pond about the size of a backyard swimming pool. They seemed strange there — the only landmarks in a sea of bright, sweeping grass.

Even stranger were the three animals prowling around the base of the tree. They looked so much like lions that I wondered if we hadn’t taken a portal to Africa instead of another planet.

“Species E18225,” Jim whispered. “Exo dire lions, basically. About two feet taller than Earth ones.”

Tony chuckled. “And ten times more pissed off. Like, all the time.”

My brow furrowed under my helmet. “We’re here to kill animals? That doesn’t seem legit.”

“Nope,” Jim said, sparing me a quick glance. “We’re here for research. We want to avoid the animals.”

Research. Of course. I almost forgot for a second that we were all wearing glowing ‘O’ insignias. I was damn near about to comment on how boring that was.

Then a dire lion roared and turned his maned head in our direction.



“What do we do?” I asked, the rifle suddenly feeling much heavier against my shoulder. “Fight or run?”

All three of the giant cats were padding around to face our direction. I had no way of knowing if they saw us, smelled us, or heard us — but they definitely knew we were hiding in the grass three hundred yards away. Though they were in no hurry to attack.

Their casual movements and staring just made it that much terrifying.

“Shoulda brought shotguns,” Tony whispered to Jim. “I freakin’ told you.”

My takeaway was that our rifles weren’t the best choice for killing lions the size of minivans. I swallowed hard, eyes were locked on the Exos that had turned their backs to the watering hole — one huge, yellow beast for each of us.

To eat each of us, I mean.

“Uhm, should we start shooting?” I asked, side eyeing Jim over my rifle’s buttstock.

A long pause. He took a breath. “If they come at us, fire away. But aim for their heads, or these ARs won’t damage ‘em enough by the time they’re on top of us.”

I didn’t have time to ask why we’d brought assault rifles if they weren’t up to the task — one of the dire lions roared what must’ve been the cat equivalent of ‘time to eat’. All three of the huge, yellow cats ran toward us, plumes of dirt and grass kicking up behind them.

“NOW!” Jim yelled, though it sounded more like a panic response than an order.

Tony yelled something too, but by the time it left his mouth, all three of us were dumping rounds downrange so fast I couldn’t make it out. The savannah erupted in the rapid pop-and-thump of rifle actions, and the supersonic cracks of bullets in flight. With my rifle kicking against my shoulder, I was overtaken by the strangest sensation I’d ever felt. If ‘confused joy’ was a thing, that’s what I’d call the wave that washed over me and made time slow down to a crawl.

The sound of our rifles, the muzzle flashes, the grass under and around me — it was all so real. As was the complete terror born from the teeth and claws bearing down on us, mixed with the excitement of fighting back. What made it confusing was the knowledge in the pit of my brain that, at the end of the day, this was still a game.

All of these thoughts burst to life inside my brain in an instant, and they faded just as quickly. The world returned to speed, my nose filled with the smell of cordite, and there was nothing left but the rush by the time the first dire lion pounced on our position.

Blood sprayed across my face when it landed on Jim. No time to work out if it was my friend’s or the Exo’s. Tony and I both kept shooting and shouting.

I rolled onto my back, ejected my empty magazine, and fumbled a fresh reload from the pouch on my plate carrier. Everything was slick with blood. Two feet away, the second cat appeared from the grass and dropped his jaws on Tony’s shoulder like a housecat picking up a stuffed mouse.

Finally seating the magazine in my rifle, I slapped the bolt release and pulled the trigger. I managed to send about ten rounds into the second Exo’s head before the third one swiped at my neck.

Intense pain…a lot more intense than I’d expected. I threw up. I blacked out.

My last thought was wondering how many of these responses were simulated, and how many were actually happening to the version of me sitting at home hooked to an Immersion console.


Of course, that wasn’t my last thought.

I guess you’d call it the last thought of that particular life. Blinking through the lingering pain sensations in my neck, I was greeted by an after-action report screen covered in stats. Much like the inventory interface, it filled my vision like I was standing in front of a huge touchscreen.

Hm. Apparently, I’d landed 28% of my shots. That seemed low.

No kills? No shit.

And a big, empty gridded window where my loot would be. If I’d gotten any.

At least I’d earned over six hundred experience points, taking me almost all the way to Level 2 according to the nearby progress bar. And I earned a medal:


I punched the floating button marked ‘CONTINUE’ and the screen faded away. The room with bunks and lockers — our private quarters — came to life in its place. Tony was laying down on his lower bunk, while Jim fiddled around with some kind of oversized sci-fi shotgun. Both of them had taken off their helmets and body armor.

“Did we make it?” I asked, smirking.

Tony groaned, and I realized from his hand gestures that he was busy inside some other in-game screen. Jim looked up from his shotgun and shook his head at me. A serious answer to a facetious question — which probably meant he was too focused on planning revenge to tell the difference.

“Hey, I got a medal. First death at HFL3.”

“Grats, bro,” Tony said, sitting up on his bunk to face me. “Feels pretty shitty the first time, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“HFL,” Jim muttered, still fondling the weapon. “Haptic Feedback Level…so basically pain level.”

“Oh! I didn’t put that together. Level three out of how many?”

“Ten,” Tony answered flatly.

My eyebrows shot up. “Ten?! It hurt enough at three! Why would anyone crank it up that high?”

“Bro,” Tony chuckled, shaking his head, “you really need to RTFM. Higher pain levels give better loot and more XP.”

Jim finally leaned his shotgun against the wall and turned his full attention to us. “Yeah, you had your zero-prep intro to the game. Trial by fire or whatever. Now, will you do your freakin’ homework so you know how to play?”

I barked a laugh. Neither of my friends ever understood why I liked figuring things out on my own. Tony pretty much shrugged it off, but my ‘play style’ seemed to really irritate Jim. It was the same in every game we ever played together.

I waited for Jim to say something else, or for Tony to change the subject, but the former was staring at me with a cocked eyebrow while the latter pretended to tie his boots. Or was he really tying his boots? Would that be a detail they’d bother adding to a combat simulation?

Smiling, I answered their silence. “Alright, guys! I’ll read some build walkthroughs or something.”

“Start by reading the Intro Guide,” Tony said. “You can get it through the menu. At least read all the quick start notes.”

Jim scoffed. “You’ll have plenty of time for it now.” He picked up the shotgun and shoved it into his locker before slamming the door shut. “Twenty-four hour time lock on that Op.”

“So we can’t do another portal for a day?”

Tony stood from his bunk and smoothed his shirt. “An RL day. About three day-night cycles here.”

“Shit,” I said, folding my arms. “I got to spend twenty minutes in the actual game, and now I’m locked out for that long? How are people not quitting left and right?”

“It was a Limited Portal, part of this week’s event,” Jim said. “Time locked, extra difficult, penalties are higher.”

Tony smirked. “But better rewards.” He squinted. “When you don’t get eaten by Exos.”

Jim nodded at the obvious qualifier. “And when you read the guide, you’ll see the game goes deep beyond the portals. Check out ‘Jobs’ and ‘Pursuits’. They’re like quests that happen outside the portal raids.”

I liked the sound of that.

Jim continued, “You could pull guard duty to earn credits. Do research. Work in the armory…”

“Or the chow hall.” Tony cut in with a grin.

Clearly I had a lot of studying to do. I’d expected Meta Mercs to be a ‘jump in, jump out’ looter shooter like most of the others. Maximum gunplay, minimal everything else.

Instead, it was a world within a world. Jobs? Pursuits? No wonder the news had so many sensational stories about Immersion addiction.

Good thing I didn’t have that kind of personality. That’s what I told myself when Jim logged out and Tony left the room to work on his own Pursuits. I took it as a chance to kick back on my bunk and read the Intro Guide. So I did.

And a few hours later, my head was burning with possibilities. I couldn’t think of anything besides the game.

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