The Adjustment Bureau Revisited
by Frank Thomas Smith
Natalie was an especially impressionable child. Now we know that almost all children are impressionable in that when small they have difficulty differentiating what is real from what is fiction or fantasy. Once, when she was seven, her father took her to a puppet show in which the devil – or a devil – had a part. When he appeared wagging his red tail and laughing wickedly, Natalie hid under her seat and wouldn't come out until the devil was gone.
So you can well understand why – when she was thirteen – she was so impressed by the film: “The Adjustment Bureau”. She knew of course that it was fiction and was based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. Her kid brother, Billy, who was only eleven, opined that the adjustment guys, as he called them, were “scary as hell”. Natalie soon set him straight by explaining that the Adjustment Bureau worked to correct human folly; so actually they were the good guys, even though their methods were somewhat...well...extreme.
Three days later, a Saturday, after having dreamed of an adjustment bureau run by Matt Damon and Emily Brunt, Natalie headed for the Brooklyn branch of the New York City Public Library. To get there from her home she cut through a piece of Prospect Park, not because it was shorter – in fact it was longer – but because she considered it one of the most beautiful places on earth in the spring. In truth she hadn't seen much of the earth, so it would have been more appropriate, or at least realistic, to call it the most beautiful place in Brooklyn.
In the book of Philip K. Dick stories she easily found “Adjustment Team”, duly noting that the title was changed for the film. She read the story in ten minutes, whereas the movie took two hours. Hmmm. Well, she reasoned, if they movie only showed what was in the story it would have been too short; also, in the story Emily Blunt is a dog – and that wouldn't do at all. And there's no love affair angle. Oh well....
These thoughts came to her almost immediately after finishing the story. But Natalie sat alone in the library reading room for several minutes thinking her own thoughts: “What if the adjustment bureau...or team...was real and Philip K. Dick somehow knew about it.” Wow! Wouldn't that be something. But how could she find out?
Natalie smiled to herself and went to the library's computer room. In one of the free machines she opened her Gmail account and sent a message to Adjustment.firstname.lastname@example.org. It read:
Dear Adjustment Team,
I read about your work in Philip K. Dick's story – which I assume you have also read – and the movie they made based on it, which you may also have seen, although it's quite new. I just wanted to tell you how much I admire your work and ask if there's any way I can help you. I'm only thirteen years old, but my dad says I'm mature for my age. Anyway, although it may seem presumptuous, I offer my services.
Natalie M. Smith
It bounced almost immediately when Yahoo advised that no such address exists. Natalie tried several variations of the address, but they were all rejected. She shrugged. It was a crazy idea anyway. She was about to close the computer and go home when a message popped up on the screen:
Natalie blinked: Gomail? Never heard of it. Nevertheless, she sent the message to that address. It didn't bounce. Natalie decided to go home and check later if an answer came. But a loud bell chimed from the computer, causing the other people in the room to turn and look at her accusingly. “You have one new message!” Gmail told her, exclamation point and all. She clicked on Inbox. She message said: Shut down the computer and go back to the Reading Room . Natalie's heart beat more quickly. She did as ordered and walked quickly back to the Reading Room. She saw him right away and recognized him from the photo on the book's dust jacket: It was Philip K. Dick. He stood up, smiled and beckoned her. When she reached the table he sat down again and said, “Hello Natalie. Yes, I'm Phil Dick and I'm dead. But don't worry about that. Please sit down.”
Natalie sat opposite him. She tried not to worry because he was dead.
“And close your mouth,” he added. He waited till she got over her surprise a little and was able to close her mouth and fold her hands.
“I work for the Adjustment Team now,” he said.
“But how...?” Natalia began, but she stopped, sensing that her question, her many questions, would not be answered.
“So you want to help us,” he said.
“Yes, Mr Dick, if you think I can.”
He seemed to close his eyes halfway before answering. “I think you can, Natalie. Some of the old timers aren't so sure, but everyone has agreed that the project be initiated.” Then he waited. Natalie felt that he was waiting for her to say something, but she didn't know what to say, so she just nodded.
Dick reached into the breast pocket of his old fashioned jacket, took out a piece of paper and handed it across to the girl. “There are some questions written on this paper, Natalie. Please memorize them and give the paper back.”
She read the three questions and looked at Dick, yes, questioningly.
“You don't understand them now,” he said. “But when the time comes, you will know when to ask them....Trust me.”
“Oh, I do, Mr. Dick.” She read the questions several times until she was sure she had them down pat. She handed the paper back to Philip K. Dick.
“I don't suppose I have to tell you not to mention all this to anyone,” he said.
“I won't. I promise,” she said, and smiled faintly.
“You're thinking that if you told anyone they'd think you're crazy,” Dick said, also smiling.
“Good bye, my dear child,” Philip K. Dick said. And good luck.” He walked out of the Reading Room without anyone recognizing him.
Natalie's father was a professor of Mathematics at Brooklyn College. When he came home the Monday after Natalie's encounter with Philip K. Dick in the Public Library, he had a surprise announcement for his family. He had received a letter that morning offering him a professorship at Georgetown University in Washington DC. His wife dropped her fork in the spaghetti. “Georgetown?" She said.
Natalie had never heard of Georgetown, so didn't know that it is one of the country's – and the world's – most prestigious, and expensive, universities. A far cry from Brooklyn college, in fact. He father smiled. “I know what you're thinking,” he said. “Why me? Well, I've been wondering about that myself. And, well, I haven't really published much. I mean I think I'm a good teacher, but not exactly a genius. On the other hand Georgetown isn't M.I.T., I mean mathematics isn't their specialty. I can imagine, though, that one of my former students...or colleagues...I don't know...recommended me down there...”
“We're going to Washington DC?” Natalie asked.
“Well, let's hear what your mother has to say about that.” Natalie's mother was also a math teacher, but not in a university. She taught in a Rudolf Steiner school right in Brooklyn, the same one Natalie attended.
“I don't know what to say,” she said. “It seems like a wonderful opportunity. But is there a hitch? What about the salary?”
“Three times what I'm earning now. And they will pay for our relocation and the kids' schooling, and...”
“O my God, I can't believe this!” She interrupted.
“...and they'll help us to find a suitable home.”
In Washington Natalie attended a pretty cool Quaker school. Her classmates were sons and daughters of politicians and successful writers and journalists and even university professors. The three questions she was to ask at the right time hadn't been asked and she worried that she may have missed the right moment. But no, when it came, she knew...
It was in civics class on the tenth anniversary of the Twin Towers attack in New York – September 11. The teacher, a handsome young man with round eyeglasses and a permanent three-day growth of beard, was explaining the affect the disaster had on New York City and the country as a whole. Natalie was in New York – Brooklyn – when it happened, but she was only three years old and of course didn't remember it. She was a Mets fan and knew that the team would be honoring the victims before the game this year and Mike Piazza and some other veterans would be there. She would watch it on TV.
“Any questions?” the teacher asked.
Briiiing! – like a bell ringing in her brain. She raised her hand and asked the first question: "Why did we send American soldiers to Iraq?"
The teacher coughed and put his hands in his pockets. “Well,” he said, “it depends on who you ask.”
I'm asking you, Natalie thought.
“Well,” the teacher said, as though he heard her, “they thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was behind 9/11. But it turned out there were no weapons of mass destruction. Some people say it was because Iraq has a lot of oil. Some day we may know the truth. Okay?”
Natalie asked the second question: “Why did we invade Afghanistan?”
“That's a little more straight forward,” the teacher said. “Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan....do you know what that is?"
“Osama bin Laden!” three or four kids answered at once.
“Sure you know.” He smiled, but then became serious. “It's been ten years that this war has been going on – longer than any war the United States has been involved in, ever. And it hasn't ended yet. The latest date is 2014. Thousands and thousands of people have been killed, not only Americans....Iraqis, Afghans. It 's really terrible, a great waste.” His voice had been rising, and he now lowered it and his head as well. “Those are good questions, but I...well, I can't...
But Natalia wasn't finished. She asked the third question. She knew the answer of course, because she had been carrying it around in her mind for almost a year: "What is a drone?"
The teacher seemed to wilt like a waterless flower. He sat down behind his desk, as though seeking protection. Stalling for time he wiped his glasses and loosened his tie. Then he looked at Natalie, and around at the other kids, and seemed to make a decision. He stood and said, “A Drone? A drone is a male honey bee.” Natalie frowned and some boys in the back of the room giggled.
“Ah, that's not the kind of drone you mean. But it at least indicates the skill of our mechanical inventors at giving things names – like “mouse” and “windows” in computers. Another kind of drone is a man-made mechanical flying instrument of death. On the blackboard he quickly sketched a drone that looked more like a mosquito than a bee. “Now there's a very big difference between a drone bee and a drone flying machine. The drone bee can't sting you see, whereas this thing does indeed sting. It's an aircraft, a bomber without a pilot on board. Actually there is a pilot – a coward sitting at a base in America and bombing with the software in his computer. Bombing has been going on in warfare for a long time, but at least the crews were taking risks - until now. Now they're not even present in their drones. They track a bad guy from way high up in the sky. At least they think he's a bad guy. That's usually in the mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They don't really know if he's a bad guy or not, but “intelligence” says he is. What's “intelligence”? In the armed forces intelligence means the opposite: ignorance. How do I know? I was there. I'm from New York, you see, and when 9/11 happened I was just old and dumb enough to join the Marines. So they sent me to Iraq, then Afghanistan where I had the opportunity to kill a few people but not nearly as many as are killed daily by drones.” He paused, frowning, remembering.
“Where was I? Oh yeah, the drone pilot back in America is told by someone on the ground that the bad guy entered a house at such and such coordinates. So the pilot finds the house in something like Google Earth and because he doesn't want to be late home for lunch where he wife hinted this morning that she was in a particularly sexy mood, he presses the joy-stick button and blows the house and everyone in it to smithereens: women, children, old men, maybe even a bad guy or two. He could not care fucking less!” The teacher was shouting now; he was beside himself. He paced back and forth from one end of the classroom to the other. He stopped. The children were frightened. They'd never seen a teacher act like this before.
“And do you know who is responsible for all this? Anyone know? I thought not. Because it's your parents, most of whom are in the government somewhere. Right? Or opinion makers, pundits. You see, all those body bags with dead American troops – I don't know why we say troops now instead of soldiers – all those dead Americans makes a very poor impression back home, whereas you can't even hear the deadly drones. They kill and maim and we don't even notice. We think it's a great idea. Me too. I'm more to blame than anyone because I know and I never said anything … until now.” He threw the piece of chalk he still had in his hand out the window. And you know what? They hate us, really hate us...and the rest of the world despises us. So thanks for the questions, new kid.” He looked at Natalie. “What's your name?” She told him but he wasn't listening.
“So I quit. Good bye my lovelies … until the drones come home.” He walked out of the classroom just as the bell rang.
The kids stood and chattered among themselves. Wow! They couldn't wait to tell everyone they knew what happened. Only two girls remained seated, as though dazed, when all the rest had left – Natalie and another girl. She went to Natalie and said, “Would you like to come home with me?”
Natalie was surprised. She had only been in the school a week and had never spoken to this girl.
“Well, I'll have to ask my mother,” she said. “Where do you live?”
“In the White House.”
Natalie stood. Now she recognized the President's daughter, whom she'd seen several times on television. They walked out together and found Natalie's mother and little brother, also a student at the school, waiting for her. They were followed by two Secret Service men a.k.a. bodyguards, and the President's daughter's little sister.
“Can I go to the White House this afternoon, mom? I'm invited.”
“I want to go, too,” her brother said.
Their mom looked from her children to the President's daughters with their bodyguards and sighed: “How will you get home?”
“We'll take them,” the President's daughter said. “Please, Ma'am. I need to talk to Natalie.”
So the four children sped off to the White House in a huge black limousine led and followed by Secret Service cars. Natalie and her brother were scared stiff and silent, but also happy to be going to the White House.
When they got there, they wanted to look around but the President's daughter said, “Let's go and see my dad.”
“The President?” Natalie said, shocked.
“Of course the President. I've got something to say to him.”
Natalie and her kid brother followed the President's daughter through carpeted hallways until they came to a closed door and a Marine lance corporal standing in front of it. “Hi there, little gal. Where y'all goin?” he said.
“Stand aside, General Pete,” she answered with a smile. “We're off to see the Presidento.”
Inside the President's daughter greeted his secretary with a Hi Gloria, and continued on to the next door to the Oval Office, followed by her retinue.
“Hi honey,” the secretary said. “What are you up to today?”
“Gotta see my dad.”
“But he's in a meeting and...” Too late, the door was already open and the squad marched in.
The President looked up in surprise. He had been huddling with his Chief of Staff about something they considered important, like the upcoming election.
“Daddy, I gotta talk to you; it's urgent!”
“Sure sweetheart, but can't it wait till...” The Chief of Staff stood up and said it was alright, he'd come back later, and left with what can only be called a smirk on his face.
“Daddy, do you know what a drone is?”
“Well sure, but what's that got to do...”
“And do you know that they kill thousands of innocent people and children and...and babies? They don' t even have live pilots in them. They're run from here somewhere like a video game, and they kill real people. I mean it's not a game. And those drones are ours, Daddy, They're American drones and they are murder drones and we own them.” She paused and her little sister burst out crying. Natalie's little brother felt like crying, too, but he was a boy so he had to hold it in.
“You gotta stop them, Daddy,” his daughter went on, half crying herself now. You're the President; you can stop them. Please!” The President looked at the children, breathed deeply and put his hands over his eyes and lowered his head to the desk top. He stayed that way for at least a minute. When he finally raised his head and looked at his daughter again, his eyes were red.
He nodded. “Okay.” He picked up the phone and and told the secretary: “Please tell the Joint Chiefs of Staff I want to see them here at eight tomorrow morning. If any of them isn't in town, arrange a teleconference.” He looked at the children and smiled. “I'll give the order first thing tomorrow morning. No more drones.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” his older daughter said and rushed into his arms...his arm, that is; the other being already occupied by his younger daughter.
“I must thank you,” he said, “It's something I should have done long ago. And who, may I ask, are these two witnesses?”
"This is Natalie, Daddy, she asked the questions in school, and this is her kid brother, I don't know his name. Natalie asked the teacher what...”
But we know all that. The next day the President ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff – army, navy, air force and marine corps – that all drone attacks were to cease immediately.
“But Mr President...” they argued and argued about how it was such a big mistake, until the President told them the meeting was over and they should please leave. They left, fuming. Then his own Chief of Staff rushed in and said it would be a political disaster, the American People wouldn't like it. Fox News would have a field day... The President fired him on the spot. The ex-Chief of Staff spent the next Sunday on all the talk shows saying the President was out of his mind...well, not in so many words, but he intimated it.
It turned out, however, that all the pundits and politicians and rating agencies were wrong. The American People for once realized what was right and saw that their President was doing it. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down – at a terrible cost, it's true – but at least they finally ended. The President was reelected by the largest majority since FDR.
Natalie sent an email to Philip K. Dick in care of the Adjustment Bureau – or team, using the same address she'd used the first time from the public library in Brooklyn. But there was no answer this time.