Baboon, Brain, Brick
A Speculative Fiction Story
Written by Louis Evans
Illustration by Jenna Van Hout
Published September 19, 2020
It was a brick that did it, falling from a great height. So they said; but they never found the brick, and many things fall from heaven.
What everyone agreed upon, including the patient himself, whose agreement was otherwise so difficult to secure, was: one moment Aaron Metzger had been en route to his mid-morning International Relations graduate seminar, walking along a narrow pathway between two ancient, ivy-hung lecture halls, and the next, he was supine on a gurney, blinking in disorientation as a paramedic shone a light in his right eye and then his left.
[[This story appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]
“What is your name?” they asked him, and his answer agreed with the undergraduate student I.D. card they had already found in his wallet. So that was fine.
“What year is it?” And his answer agreed with all the signs and portents and figurations by which this special number makes itself known.
“Who is the President?” And in a liberal college town in the age of Trump this question was more controversial than it once had been. Even the recently injured were given to expressions of distaste and revulsion rather than a clear statement of commonly acknowledged facts. The paramedics were ready for such remarks. They were not ready, however, for what followed.
Aaron smiled a small, satisfied smile. Then, in a clear and even voice that betrayed no cognitive impairment, he said the name of his president.
“Could you say that again?”
“Ada Kochiyama. The, uh, the President? I interned for her campaign two years ago, actually.”
Paramedics have been trained not to groan with dismay, even when they are very much dismayed. Although, to tell the truth, an undergraduate with a visible dimple in his cranium but no symptom worse than political flights of fancy was not especially dismaying. So they did not interrupt, and Aaron kept talking.
“Yeah, I was on the international affairs team. The Third Marshall Plan? I worked on that.” And then, humbler — “I mean, I mostly just got coffee for the people doing the real work. But you know what I mean.”
“Who did you say the president was?”
“Ay-duh Ko-chi-ya-ma!” Louder this time, enunciating clearly and with the distinct accent of an Anglophone who has carefully practiced saying a Japanese name so as to deliver it correctly.
The paramedics shared a knowing glance.
Aaron chuckled nervously, tried a joke. “Listen, folks, don't ask the question if you don't already know the answer, huh?”
The shorter of the paramedics, a round-faced woman, laid a hand reassuringly on his arm.
“We’re going to take you in for observation. Hang tight.”
The advantage of developing a theretofore-unknown mental pathology at a university research hospital was that there was no shortage of learned doctors lining up to take a look at Aaron.
Of course, a hundred doctors may be of no more use than one.
All of the tests, interviews, inquiries, and assessments revealed the exact same thing. Aaron Metzger was a bright, agreeable, cooperative young man; each of these traits he displayed in sufficiency but not to excess. His knowledge of literature, art, and history from before the 1980s was far from perfect, but it was entirely normal for a person his age, and precisely agreed with the textbooks.
Nothing about Aaron Metzger’s mind was out of place except for one comprehensive and overwhelming delusion — that the forty years from 1978 to 2018 had gone remarkably well. Incredibly well. Those four decades represented a golden age of global peace and prosperity that the doctors could scarcely imagine.
Aaron was a competent student of international relations at a selective university, and so he rattled off his reimagined history with the exaggerated confidence of just such an undergraduate. The terminology began at incredible — “Korean reunification,” “the Tiananmen Constitution,” “the Jerusalem Accords” — and rapidly shaded into the inconceivable. “The Pan-Arab elections of ’03,” “the Afghan Tiger economy,” “AIDS eradication,” “the Nairobi Convention on global disarmament, the so-called ‘war ban.’”
The neurologists and psychologists were stumped, but another advantage of developing bizarre geopolitical delusions at a university hospital was that there was no shortage of government and history scholars either.
Professors were summoned. Graduate students were corralled. Various other academics converged on Aaron’s sickbed, rapt, their audio recorders perched attentively like birds at a watering hole.
Eventually, it occurred to Aaron to ask why so many senior academics were so interested in his fairly pedestrian recounting of well-known events. The doctors of medicine and doctors of history held a hurried conference and elected to tell him the true history of the past half century.
Aaron Metzger received this history first as farce, then as tragedy. Once he was convinced it was not simply an unkind joke played on a sick man, his face took on the expression that dementia sufferers often display. A grandfather standing on an abandoned stretch of road beside paved-over tracks, pleading with a skeptical policeman. “The number nine streetcar stops here. I know it does! It’ll be along at any minute, I swear!”
That was what Aaron Metzger sounded like, as he murmured sentences like “but the Shah abdicated —” and “why would anyone fight over the Falklands?” and the professors overran his objections with a rolling tide of facts, dates, and events. By the time they reached the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, Aaron Metzger no longer tried to speak, but simply wept open and unreserved tears.
Professors and doctors watched him sob as they unfolded the history of the world. Deep within their guts twisted a shame both wholly global and peculiarly intimate, not just because they had made this child cry.
The professors met in conference rooms to discuss Aaron’s history of the world. Not one of them suggested that it might be an accurate vision or memory of some other place. They were men and women of learning, and educated persons do not consider such absurdities. At least not in public.
They did, however, (quite unprofessionally and informally) debate the plausibility of what they called his fictions, his delusions. The majority held that such events were a rank impossibility, that the affairs of the world could never be set so thoroughly and justly to rights.
“A self-indulgent fantasy, dreamed up by a tender-hearted, overeducated child,” said one. The rest nodded along, and for this brave feat of skepticism they named themselves the realists.
But there was a minority, small yet staunch, which differed. They held that Aaron’s history (they called it his “alternity,” sometimes his “conjecture”) was as possible as our own. Why not peace, even in a world so often given over to war? One of these professors, these skeptics of skepticism, told the story of a troop of wild baboons. These baboons, the Forest Troop, suffered a plague that wiped out their most aggressive and exploitative members, the clique of then-dominant males — but afterwards, a peaceful equilibrium was reached, and even those baboons who subsequently joined the troop learned to live under its laws of harmony. The next generation of dominant males exhibited less combative, more prosocial behavior. In just that way, the professor proposed an age of peace might breed more peace, just as war gives rise to war.
Every member of that staunch minority found this idea very compelling. The realists were unimpressed. Of course, these debates did nothing to change Aaron’s hospital release date.
The hospital kept Aaron for observation for many weeks, more for self-interested reasons than to protect his well-being. Half a dozen doctors put their names to a paper “discovering” Aaron’s peculiar condition, and added the citation triumphantly to their CVs.
But ultimately, Aaron Metzger wasn't crazy. He was just deeply misinformed about history. You can't keep people in a mental hospital for that; you'd have to lock up half the country. Despite his bizarre and lasting delusion, family relations and friendships could be sustained with only minor differences. He only forfeited a handful of exchange students that had never existed, pen pals from regions with no functional postal infrastructure, that sort of thing.
So they let him go, and he went back to school.
Time passed. Aaron graduated college. He went to work for the State Department.
When he ran for Congress in 2022, at just twenty-five years of age and a mere three years after he'd started at State, he had the résumé of a diplomat many decades his senior.
Nevertheless, the journalists didn’t want to talk about the wonder boy with a penchant for leadership. They just wanted to talk about his time in the hospital. It was a violation of patient privacy, but that didn't stop anyone.
“Is it true you don't believe that 9/11 happened?” a hostile blogger shouted at his second press conference. Opposition research had suggested that this was the most inflammatory line of questioning.
Aaron smiled. “No, I believe it happened. I just remember things a little differently.”
In a different era, a stint as a mental patient with complicated delusions would have sunk Aaron’s congressional candidacy. But this was 2022; the chair of the science committee was a Flat-Earther. Aaron won the election with a comfortable majority, ousting a twelve-year incumbent.
Two years in the House, after which Aaron went back to State. An undersecretary this time. Doing good work. Stuff well beyond his brief. He started to gain a reputation: man with the golden touch.
Plus there were the hours. It is generally acknowledged that everyone at State works too much. But Aaron was a robot. Eighteen-hour Sundays, that sort of thing.
Usually a work ethic like that would have some vice underwriting it. Quite often, that vice would be cocaine. Sometimes something more innocuous, like Adderall or sex.
Not for Aaron. When Aaron made it home for those few precious hours, all he did was sleep. Sleep was enough.
Zero guesses as to what he dreamt about.
Three years back at State, and Aaron’s home-state senator died of a pulmonary embolism. Face down in the chicken cacciatore at a fundraising dinner in a strip-mall Hilton. Aaron Metzger was thirty years old.
Of course he ran.
This was an open Senate seat, the big leagues, and so his opponents threw everything at him. The delusions, the dent in his skull that in certain lights lent him a demented and demonic appearance.
This backfired. His growing flock of fans — through his astoundingly reasonable commentary on Twitter, Undersecretary Metzger, the foreign policy wonk, had somehow acquired fanatics — started showing up to rallies with cosmetics applied to suggest dents of their own. They were Harry Potter fans, sometimes even in the second generation; a scar did not scare them.
The attack ads targeting his delusions backfired even more thoroughly, somehow. You saw signs at highway onramps that read “Infinite Aarons for Infinite America” and tweets like “Represent me, Dimension Daddy! #Metzger2027.” On the eve of the election, polls showed that 28% of voters affirmatively believed that Aaron Metzger either came from, or had an actual experience of, a different timeline; another fifty percent or so declared themselves uncertain but willing to consider it.
With numbers like that it's hard to lose, so he didn't. Three cheers for Senator Metzger.
A United States Senator is accountable only to God and the voters, and not necessarily in that order. Senator Metzger used that power, that freedom. Being too junior to sit on the Foreign Service committee didn’t stop him from moonlighting. Freelancing, he called it. Just packing up onto a plane and flying somewhere. “Conflict zones,” mostly. Sometimes the other sort of place; the kind where wars are invented rather than where they are fought. The capitals of great powers.
Nobody could really describe what he was doing but, by God, it worked. So well it was impossible to credit, hard to even notice. In July, the newspapers would be full of headlines like “growing sectarian violence in the impoverished region,” etc.; in August, there would be a Metzger visit; in November, someone would say, “hey, whatever happened to East-such-and-such?” That kind of thing.
Three years into the Senate, there was a new President. People wanted Senator Metzger to run; the Draft Aaron petitions went quite thoroughly viral, even though he was too young to legally serve.
But Aaron’s ineligibility for office didn’t stop the new President from recognizing a winner, and so a week after the inauguration, Aaron Metzger was named Secretary of State.
The golden touch had been something remarkable on its own, but it was something else entirely when backed by the full faith and credit of the United States of America. Multilateral talks in Israel-Palestine started churning out treaties. Two decades-old civil wars each concluded within the same week.
Finally the journalists wanted to talk about something else. “How do you do it?” they asked, and then again, in various more formal registers.
Aaron could have told them. There was nothing to it; the only trick was memory. Aaron Metzger remembered back in 2010, when Eid al-Fitr and Rosh Hashanah fell on the same weekend and social media filled up with nothing but Jerusalem street parties, the way the Jewish and Muslim kids at school all showed up in identical garish green and white and blue T-shirts. He remembered his high school classmates taking gap years to go work for tech startups in Khartoum and Baghdad and Kabul. He remembered the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Kurdistan Workers Party declaring “not a coalition government, but a unity government” in Damascus after the election of ’03. He remembered the summer before college, taking the ultra-high-speed line that ran from Tokyo to Beijing by way of Pyongyang, the Pyongyang street food, the soapbox preachers for every imaginable political party.
He remembered silly things: Kentucky winning Eurovision, edging out independent Catalonia. The President of Russia riding that ridiculous green-ribboned bicycle around Moscow, raising anti-global-warming awareness with a big banner reading “CO2: Good for Russia, Bad for the World.”
He remembered apologies — so many apologies they blurred together. Ministers and presidents and monarchs weeping at monuments to their own nations’ atrocities. Snapshots in textbooks, scenes on television.
Aaron Metzger smiled at the cameras. “I see a better world,” he said, and left it at that.
Secretary of State Metzger kept the same work schedule as Secretary that he’d had for the past decade; his visits abroad were stuffed to the gills with officials and “stakeholders” and “constituents” and “concerned parties.” But every now and then an odd request would filter down from the Secretary to the staff — a name nobody could recognize, a few sketchy biographical details jotted from memory, always dating to the ’70s or earlier. “Track down this person.”
The Secretary left an ASEAN summit a day early, for example, to meet with a retired elementary school teacher in Guangzhou, an elderly woman whom he kept calling Madame President as he puttered around her kitchen, making her tea.
But nobody told the journalists about that sort of thing. No harm, no foul. An eccentricity like that was easy to forgive.
Three full years as Secretary of State, each more successful than the last. The scholars of international conflict began to discuss a “Metzger Effect:” global indices of conflict that had shown a steady heartbeat of hate and strife and war for decades registered a sudden cardiac arrest in the misery-industrial complex.
At the end of those three years, Metzger resigned to run for President. The incumbent put up only token resistance in the primary; the general election was the most genteel in living memory. Lots of policy debates, lots of “my honorable opponent.”
Of course, you can’t win an election on foreign policy alone. But Aaron Metzger’s secret weapon worked on domestic policy too. Not what he remembered, but what he didn’t. Before he woke up on a paramedic’s stretcher in college in 2018, Aaron Metzger couldn’t remember ever hearing of Waco, Oklahoma City, or Columbine; of 9/11, Abu Ghraib, or Guantanamo Bay; of Ferguson or Flint; of Katrina, Harvey, or Maria.
When he spoke about his country, people could feel that. Not “Morning in America,” but the warm steady embrace of a summer’s afternoon. The contented confidence of a nation that had lived up to all its best ideals. People cheered at those rallies but mostly they smiled, tears in their eyes. There was no substitute for that feeling; by that cool night in early November, America loved Aaron Metzger. Simple as that.
And so it was that a man with a warm, confident smile, a visible dent in his forehead, and an unironic campaign slogan of “World Peace in Twenty Years” became the youngest person ever elected President of the United States.
In the weeks before the inauguration, the big question was whether President Metzger would explicitly mention his vision in the inaugural address.
He didn’t; he stood on the steps of the Capitol and laid out not a past but a future. Reconciliation within the nation, with the entire globe. World peace in twenty years, and an America worthy of that peace. Even the fanatics with faux dents and elaborate blogs of “Aaron’s America” fanfiction who thronged the Mall in hopes for the vindication of their wildest theories came away satisfied. And when he was done talking, President Aaron Metzger went for a stroll up Pennsylvania Avenue.
He did not ride in a bulletproof car; he did not wear a slim-fitting bulletproof vest. He walked down the street bareheaded and unprotected, wind in his hair and a smile on his face.
The Secret Service had not cared for this plan when the President first shared it with them. In vain had they explained that a man of peace may have warlike enemies. In vain had they argued that “well beloved” does not mean “universally beloved,” that America loved Reagan, loved Kennedy, and look what happened to them.
“Thanks anyway,” Aaron Metzger said, “I still think I'll walk.” And walk he did, unshielded and exposed, even though it left every agent in his security detail gulping down double doses of Valium and Tums.
Still, the Secret Service was dedicated and capable, and they protected President Aaron Metzger as well as they humanly could.
But they couldn’t stop that single, falling brick.
The body of President Aaron Metzger lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, in an open casket, despite what the brick had done to his skull.
Metzger’s Vice President, the new President, wept as she delivered the funeral oration. She called Aaron Metzger the greatest American of his generation, and she meant it.
She dedicated the new administration, her administration, “To those same principles of peace and prosperity, justice and fellowship” that President Metzger had always championed. And she meant that too.
But the world can be a cold and lonely place, crueler than it cares to show. Did Americans twenty years after the funeral look back on Aaron Metzger’s promise of world peace as a prophecy or a joke? I have my hopes — and my fears. But either way, it was up to them.
And did Aaron Metzger perhaps awaken somewhere else, in another America, with a twin set of eminently-survivable dimples in his skull? Did he find himself in a hospital bed surrounded by the well-wishing sentiments of the free leaders of a freer world? Did he recuperate in a hospital that had admitted its last gunshot victim when the oldest doctors were newly minted interns? Did he walk home to the White House unaccompanied by pomp or security, followed merely by a cheerful throng, a sort of undeclared festival, as all around him the happy citizens of the contented capital tittered and elbowed each other, whispering “Look! There goes our President”?
Did he return to an Oval Office upon whose walls hung a painting of President Ada Kochiyama’s triumphant address at the UN General Assembly, announcing the official eradication of malaria?
Did he smile to himself, a small and satisfied smile, as he thought of the summer he spent on President Kochiyama’s campaign, of the decade and a half he spent in a darker and more difficult place, and of how truly happy he was to be home at last?
Did he give himself a little shake, and set such reminiscences aside, and pick up his pen, and once more set about that work of careful diplomacy that midwives the birth of an ever-better world?
Perhaps it seems unlikely that any of that happened.
But consider: Perhaps it did. After all, many things fall from heaven.
[[This story appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]
Louis Evans is a science fiction writer living and working in NYC. His work has been published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Interzone, Escape Pod, and other markets. On certain quiet mornings he can almost remember that better, kinder world.
This story is a work of fiction. Sometimes it's a good idea to fact-check fiction, but we did not fact-check this. There's more about our transparency process at our page about truth and transparency at The New Modality.