This is Part II. For Part I, Click here.
Ghostly certainty, like being killed by an animal you could not accept as real until it’s cracking open your rib cage.
LeBron James knew well the sensation of losing an important basketball game. The key to coming back—to flipping a loss into a win—was clearing the mind. Forget the score. Focus on the present, every moment a singular adventure. Do it right and the whole notion of losing vanishes. Only basketball remains, a game he plays better than anyone else.
“One repeat is as good as two three-peats, eh, meat bag?”
Digital Michael Jordan kept scoring, then pausing to stand in place and bellow a haunted laugh that shook the entire surreal, digitized, video-game-world reality around them. His jaw dropped too far down as he did so. Digital Jordan had a mouth, LeBron thought, like a dragon. With fangs.
LeBron was scared. That incessant cackling was an army of armed demons between himself and the beautiful game’s essence. His teammates weren’t human; they were graphical representations of D-Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Bird Man, and the rest. And they were playing like sh*t. If he couldn’t overcome his frustrations, he could never forget about losing. The world would end.
On the magic screen projected in the sky above the court, LeBron could see the cross-section of Earth and the white light slowly sliding through layers of mantle and outer core.
LeBron looked at the clock: 77-61, with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. This wasn’t Michael Jordan he was playing; this was an evil machine hell-bent on bringing death. It was all slipping away. He wanted to cry.
Then a block hole opened over the court, and D-Wade—the real D-Wade—fell through. He landed like Spider-Man (black costume), in a crouch, and brought his head up to look into the twisted face of Digital Michael Jordan.
“What is this?!” the machine fumed. For the first time, LeBron heard uncertainty in its monstrous voice.
“This,” D-Wade said, “is the cavalry.” He had some kind of bulky, mechanical gun strapped across his back. He brought his arms behind him and grabbed the weapon. He leveled it, aiming from his hip. “You’re done, asshole,” D-Wade said.
He fired. A flash of rainbow light, and everything snapped off into pitch blackness. All LeBron could hear was Digital Michael Jordan’s agonized screaming.
. . .
Earlier . . .
“LET’S PLAY!!!” Digital Michael Jordan had roared. Before LeBron could gather his wits, a whistle tweeted and a ball was in play and Digital Michael Jordan was flying down the court with it and dunking. He cackled the whole way.
“So long, stars,” the villain was sneering as he jogged backward back on defense. “So long, moon. So long, sun. So long, life.”
The ball felt real in LeBron’s huge hands, even if it didn’t look it. It was glowing oddly, a cartoon object made tangible. He dribbled up and was met by a zombie-eyed demon version of the great Scottie Pippen. The Pippen-thing’s knees were bent in a deep squat. It’s arms extended like buff tree limbs. The real Pippen’s defense had been legendary. How about this guy’s? LeBron wondered.
He butt-plowed the Pippen down toward the hoop while he dribbled and scanned the rest of the court for other Heat players. They were all covered, so LeBron leaned until Pippen’s body pushed back. LeBron spun, flipping up a left-handed bank shot. As he did so, a bright green flash appeared. A brick slammed him in the face and he was on the ground. With blurred vision, he looked up and watched the ball drop in. Dennis Rodman stepped over him, a foot on either side of LeBron’s chest. Rodman flexed his tattooed arms and craned his head, with dyed-green hair, upward. A growl emerged from deep within, with a stream of red-orange flames.
Jordan laughed again. LeBron was still on the ground as Jordan was sprinting the other direction to dunk on the fake Udonis Haslem.
“Jesus,” LeBron whispered, as Rodman sucked back the flame belch and jogged off. LeBron pushed himself up, vowing to play as hard as necessary to beat these monsters. His head was bleeding.
. . .
Digital Michael Jordan stopped screaming when the lights all came back on. D-Wade was still holding the space-aged gun at his hip. Digital Michael Jordan had grown. His snaking neck lowered the head toward them, and it tilted a few degrees. He was staring at D-Wade’s gun, assessing.
A featureless hand grabbed the gun. Wade couldn’t stop Digital Luc Longley from pulling the weapon from his grip and, with a single squeeze, crunching the whole thing to bits.
Digital Michael Jordan’s arms and legs were lengthening. The uniform darkened, and melted into his skin as the whole torso sucked inward. His mouth and nose were gone. His eyes shrunk to tiny black diamonds. Low vibrations emitted off Digital Michael Jordan as he changed. He hands were hooking into claws at the end of praying mantis–like arms.
“What the f*ck is that thing?” real D-Wade, his black skin-suit shimmering with circuitry, asked LeBron. LeBron resisted the urge to grab his hoops partner and pull him close for a hug. They had to look up to take the whole thing in.
“What was that gun?” LeBron asked Wade, gesturing toward Digital Luc Longley, glowing pink under his Bulls uniform, zombie eyes not looking at anything. Pieces of metal littered the floor around him.
“Mario said we could use it to override this beast,” D-Wade told him, voice shaking. “Where’s Chris? He was supposed to be right behind me.”
. . .
Chris Bosh had felt a hard shift during teleportation, and hadn’t dropped into any video-game world like they planned. This was jungle. The long grass crackled as he strode through it. Bright sunlight shone off the mirrors in circuits spread across his arms and legs, fixed firmly onto his skin-tight inter-dimensional transporting suit. The light was reflecting onto lush greenness of grass and hungry trees. So many lights he felt like a disco ball.
“Dwyane!?” Bosh called, and a large lithe animal leaped from behind the thick hairy tree up ahead. Bosh narrowed his eyes at the big, bird-looking thing as it raced toward him, jumped, and landed hard into his chest with a deafening shriek.
Is that a raptor? Bosh wondered when a long claw slashed open his stomach and his guts slid out into the animal’s oinking, slurping, eager mouth.
. . .
“This wasn’t a game!” LeBron cried at the enormous lanky creature who no longer looked anything like Michael Jordan. His voice cracked as he continued: “You’ve been cheating! You disrespect the game of basketball! YOU HAVE TO STOP THE SINGULARITY!” He stopped yelling and added, “Please.”
It didn’t have a mouth anymore, but the croaking laugh came from somewhere and echoed off the video-game world’s boundaries.
The clock ticked to zero. The Bulls won 117-90. The demon’s laugh got louder. A frown took over LeBron’s entire face. The light met the Earth’s core. He turned to D-Wade and held out his hand. “South Beach forever, Dog,” LeBron said as they shook. Digital Michael Jordan spread his arms out into wide wings and kept laughing his ass off.
Then everything went white.