It happens more quickly than we ever anticipated.
Everybody makes jokes about the apocalypse, but it’s not so funny when it shows up in the middle of the night on your back doorstep.
They come in twos. Silently, they assemble in the park, the shopping district, the back alleys of downtown Manhattan, communing…planning… Marking their courses, they disperse in pre-planned regiments to blend themselves in among the people. By the time their surveillance period is finished, they have gathered more than enough information for a successful invasion, and no one will be able to stop them. And what would be the point? After all, they’re only balloons…
Jenny Marketou wakes up to a beautiful morning in the fall of 2005. Her art career is flourishing, the sun is out, and her husband is gone for the day. The world is full of unexpected and boundless opportunity. She decides to check up on one of her latest projects. Jenny walks into her surveillance installation in the Krannert Art Museum in Champagne, Illinois- to find an empty room.
“What’s going on here?” She calls to the scant number of people in the room. the visitors amble around, looking at the tape marks on the walls and floor, confused. A boy mumbles to his sister, “They call this art?” Workers at the museum run around, ushering folk off to other exhibits. Jenny brushes the hair back from her face, distressed: looking for answers. Then she sees the curator, Michael Rush, frantically pacing to and fro in the corner, dialing a number on his cell phone. Her own mobile rings. She answers it, immediately flooding the receiver with questions. “Did- did you not like my work? Have you decided not to show the piece? Did something happen to the balloons?”
“That’s just it,” he replies with the same barely controlled tone of tense frustration, looking across the room and unexpectedly meeting her eyes. He hangs up and walks toward her. “We thought you’d decided to pull out. The cleaning staff came in on Sunday morning, and everything was gone…”
There is silence, for a moment. Pedestrians stop and stare at the wondrous objects floating lazily across the sky. A child taps her mother’s shoulder. “Look, mommy– balloons!” One of the balloons detaches from the crowd and descends to the height of the little girl. She reaches out, delighted, grabbing the dangling string– and then all hell breaks loose.
The balloons descend automatically and initiate their projection sequence, a montage of war clips uploaded from the database of a separate art project called Threatbox US. The sounds draw even more people to the objects. Then, once great crowds have collected around the floating soldiers, they initiate the Spotlight. Balloons zoom across the sky, pinpointing the locations of specific humans and zapping them with electronic pulses that render them senseless.
Chaos is in the air. Governments world-wide are calling each other, blaming the other for unprovoked attacks on their citizens. Then, the bombing starts. Pre-emptive strikes set out across the continents, razing sky-scrapers and houses and other planes, crashing in flaming heaps of shrapnel to the ground. As the night moves on, anarchy increases. The majority of the populace feels certain that doom is imminent. Stores are looted, car races ensue. A mother crouches behind a fallen semi-truck with her little girl, praying that the destruction will cease.
And, just as suddenly, it does.
The little girl peers out from behind her mother’s arms, and in the lightening sky, detects no trace of balloon or plane. She tiptoes out of shelter, and sees the inert forms of man and building, broken and lying on the ground together. “Momma– momma, you can come out now, it’s all right, they’ve gone!” She shouts joyfully…but her mother does not stir. Behind her shoulder blade, a small piece of shrapnel is lodged: part of the surveillance camera of one of the balloons.
The little girl wanders the streets alone, desperate to find another breathing form, tears running down her face. She stumbles and begins to run, crying out for someone, anyone. At last, she sinks to her feet beside a murky puddle. Her dress is disheveled and her feet are cold. “This is all so terrible…” she sighs. “Unless…it is just a dream?”
Her belly grumbles, and as night sets in once more, the girl begins to shiver. She lays down beside the puddle and mutters to herself, before sleep takes her, “It was only a dream. It was only a dream….”