hat if you awoke one morning to discover that hard plastic cylinders had fallen during the night; they were in the woods, school playgrounds, people’s yards, and in the streets; they fell as people slept and had so far done only a little damage to roofs and car tops; no one knew what they were, but they were red and black with strange hieroglyphics on them that experts concluded were of ancient Asian origin; the cylinders emitted a whirring sound; they were about the size of a baseball but slightly lighter and cylindrical instead of round; what if you held one of these things in your hand and imagined the evil inside; what if rumors surfaced of experiments conducted by rogue nations and terrorist groups trying to miniaturize nuclear weapons; talking heads discussed the possibility of chemical or biological warfare; retired military experts speculated which of our enemy nations could have been responsible; what if many of the cylinders were collected by bomb squads and taken to secret laboratories where preliminary tests indicated a hoax, but the internet lit up with alternate theories; citizens grew more and more anxious; religious leaders spoke about prophesy fulfillment; you and everyone else grew frantically concerned about loved ones; what if people began to flee to the countryside to get away from the mysterious cylinders that were too large and buoyant to be flushed; what if those who fled endured interstate gridlock only to discover the cylinders were also there in the country; many wrecks resulted from frantic attempts to escape impending death; what if reasonable, calm government explanations seemed like shallow attempts at panic control, claiming the ones examined so far contained nothing but a small battery and whirring device; people didn’t trust the government’s explanations, thinking the examined ones were just decoys and the real deadly ones were hidden within the multitude; what if the internet fanned suspicions that China or North Korea or radical Muslims or even our own government had launched a massive, doomsday attack and soon it would be all over; conspiracists explored the probable forms of death—concussive explosions, radiation, flesh-eating bacteria, poison gas—that lay dormant inside the cylinders, waiting to be released all over the country simultaneously; or maybe the detonations would not be simultaneous but would produce successive waves of destruction; what if everyone accepted that there would be no escape; what if all this happened over the course of one day, which would be the second day since they had fallen the night before; by the end of this day the panic was widespread and people continued to die from wrecks and accidents caused by desperate flight; some silly people dug holes and buried the cylinders; others shut themselves up in their basements; what if people tossed the cylinders back and forth into each other’s yards; stores were emptied of bottled water, canned goods, batteries, and duct tape; martial law was declared; what if many frantic people believed the cylinders contained a mutating virus that would turn us all into zombies; some people wanted to believe that the zombie apocalypse had finally begun; what if all this happened so that by the end of the second day you were as panicked and exhausted as everyone else, but you didn’t know what to do other than worry and avoid the cylinders; what if you saw some crazy fool with cylinders taped over his ears like headphones, running around shouting and daring the unknown enemy: “Bring it on!” What if after the second day, with still no definitive answers (even though official reports maintained “hoax”) everyone was crazy exhausted with fear but could not sleep; rogue governments and terrorist groups claimed responsibility; some thought it was the work of anonymous hackers; everyone you talked to felt sure we’d all be dead by morning, and so did you; what if you gathered your ex-wife (who had fallen, sobbing, into your arms a few hours before), your teenage son, and dog in the basement and set up air mattresses and managed to sleep a little, but your dreams were terrifying, involving tests and assignments that you’d not completed but now everything was due, and the dreams also involved trying to patch leaky vessels with pine straw; what if when you awoke on the third day, you climbed the stairs and looked out onto a beautiful sunrise, but you still didn’t feel safe until you saw your neighbor, Mr. Thompkins, running around shouting they really were a hoax—nothing!—he said they were really nothing; then you saw another guy with a hammer smashing one against the curb and laughing; internet still worked; people in the cities were celebrating because they weren’t dead or undead but alive and still who they were before—wouldn’t that be awesome?
Wouldn’t your relief be just about the best thing ever? Would you bring your dog, son, and ex-wife up into the glorious sunlight and hug them tightly? Would you hug Mr. Thompkins and your other neighbors, even those you usually ignored? Would you dance a little jig? Would you pick up all the cylinders you could find and have hilarious batting practice with them? Would you take your family on a picnic? Would you approach life differently, at least for a day or two? Would the world be a better place, at least for a day or two, as a result of the mysterious cylinders? But what about the perpetrators? They would have to be found out and punished because good folks had suffered and died as a result of their colossal prank. What if you were the one to decide their punishment? Some symbolic, not-to-mean gesture because, after all, it was only a hoax. Would you, through covert ops, turn the culprits’ water blue? Set off stink bombs in their cities? Spray them with bed bug eggs? Or would you do nothing at all?