Short story by Jack Bragen

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]o one could hear the sound because it was ever-present. Its various messages penetrated people’s nervous systems — the effect was subliminal. The sound was partly advertisements, partly propaganda, and partly made up of threats as to what would happen to citizens if they failed to obey the government. It all mixed together into a steady, homogenous background noise.
Meg Thomas had begun to hear the sound, and because of this, they had given her brain surgery. The surgery had left her with sunken, shadowy eyes. She was hard of hearing, and to her, the sound was now only a monotone murmur.
Also, Meg kept a journal. She naively believed no one could find or access her journal, because it didn’t have physical existence — she kept it in her mind.
On Wednesday morning, Meg prepared to go to her job. She was a groundskeeper at a complex of offices. Her work had formed calluses on her hands, and a firm set of shoulder muscles. Meg always looked forward to going to work, although this was a secret.
She watered the shrubbery after trimming it. It was lunch hour, and several employees of the nearby offices sat on a bench eating tuna sandwiches. Meg realized that the lunch-goers were watching her. She turned toward them and returned their gaze.
“Why do your eyes look like that?” a man asked. He wore a hideous yellow dress shirt with a striped blue necktie from some unknown time. Shirts and ties had made a comeback after being out of existence for nearly five centuries.
“Why can’t you put on some decent clothes?” she said. “My gardening is going to wither from your ugliness.”
Meg was accustomed to this kind of banter, and it was no indication of malice on either side.
“Are you hearing voices?” the man asked.
“Only your whiny effeminate voice,” Meg replied.
“Would you like a tuna sandwich? I have an extra one. I promise you it isn’t poisoned.”
Meg put down her garden hose and sat at the bench next to the office workers. “If my supervisor learns of this, I’ll probably be flogged.”
Meg was serious. Sitting and enjoying was prohibited without proper licensing, and even then was permitted only under the strictest of guidelines.
The pain of flogging was no laughing matter. Even the most fortified of people were terrified of the pain by nerve induction produced by the punishment machine. People might be punished once or twice in adolescence, and it created a lifetime of unquestioning obedience.
Also, there was a limited permissible amount of speech. Words like “thinking” and “upset,” or anything having to do with a person’s interior, were prohibited. You also couldn’t say the word, “government.”
Meg took a bite of tuna and realized there was something different about the gentleman in the awful yellow shirt. The other workers didn’t seem unusual as they blithely ate their tuna while keeping an eye on their timepieces.
The man was smiling.
Meg Thomas had only seen a smile a couple of times in her life. And this had been followed soon after by the disappearance of the person who smiled.

The government had given her brain surgery. The surgery had left her with sunken, shadowy eyes.

“The government can’t hurt us.” He continued to smile. “You should try it. It is perfectly safe.”
Meg practically jumped out of her skin. Where was this person’s fear? Something was wrong with him.
“Are you capable?” Meg ventured. It was forbidden to ask how someone felt, or to use the word “okay.” Thus, a person was left with, “Are you capable?” or perhaps, “Are you sick?” Yet the latter question was a stretch, and could only be used if you saw a person was either vomiting or bleeding.
“I’m fine. There is nothing to fear.” The man stood from the bench, put out his arms, and began to run around like a child mimicking flying.
Soon, the men in gray uniforms arrived. It took only a minute or two for them to show up. Two men restrained him by his arms. One of them jabbed the errant man in the neck with a hypodermic needle, and with no gentleness whatsoever, pushed the plunger home. The violator immediately went pale and rigid.
The drug created rigidity and not limpness, as it made a violator easier to carry to disposal. The two men roughly threw the now deceased violator into the back of their pickup truck, got in and drove away.
A third man remained on the scene to give the remaining people a thorough flogging. Meg was not done being flogged until much later, and eventually returned to her apartment with much relief. Still reeling from two hours of unimaginable pain, Meg took two aspirin that had cost an exorbitant sum. She lay on her back looking at the ceiling, and began to write in her nonphysical journal.
“It is futile to try disobeying the rules, because death by cruel means will immediately follow…”
Meg wrote in her journal until ready to fall asleep. Her writings were recorded perfectly in her brain cells, as though written on stone tablets, or on the writing paper that had existed centuries earlier.
“What is the point?” wrote Meg, just before succumbing to sleep. She dreamt of another time, another place. Anything could be said, and almost anything done, without the fear of punishment. People did things because they wanted to. People were happy. People cared for one another. Is that how it once was?
When she awoke, she knew her arrest was imminent. She knew she craved something better, and she believed the government would know about her inmost feelings.
As a final gesture of trying to have something good, Meg took a tea bag from its hiding place and drank tea. It was moderately enjoyable and thus a flagrant violation. And then, Meg snapped to attention when there was a very loud knock on the door.