Saturday, January 25, 2020

"Fourteen Candles" by Mike Murphy

Editor's Introduction: 

Sirius Science Fiction kicks off 2020 with this cautionary tale about aging and lifespans set in the near future.

Young Billy Mason couldn’t understand why Papa didn’t want to celebrate his birthday this year. Only one life candle would be lit on the cake. What was the big deal?
“Come on, Dad!” Lenore pleaded as she set the kitchen table.
“Not this year,” he insisted.
“But it’s your birthday.”
Don’t remind me.”
“I already bought the cake.”
“You should have checked with me first,” he told his daughter. “I only have two candles left. I don’t want to be down to my last one. That’s so. . . final.”
“But you will be anyway, whether we burn it or not. It will stop working on its own. You know how well they keep records.”
“You think they’d forget about an old man,” he scoffed.
“They don’t forget anyone.”
“It was nice of you to think of me, but the answer’s no.”
“You love cake.”
“You won’t understand until your life-case is almost empty,” he told Lenore, looking down at the pattern of the tablecloth. “Let the kids have the cake anyway – just without singing or. . . or candles.”
“But it says ‘Happy Birthday, Papa’ right on top!”
“Wipe that part off! Maybe then I’ll have a piece.”
As he closed the door to his room, Billy smiled at the surprise birthday present he would give Papa. Even though he shouldn’t have been listening, he had heard him talking with Mom and now knew what the problem was.
He opened the lid to the life-case affixed to his bureau. He had plenty of candles! He reached in, grabbed two seven-year-old handfuls, and nudged the lid closed with a pinky.
He put them down on the little plastic table in the corner. Only then did he see the problem: These candles were white. Papa’s were red. He fetched his arts and crafts bin from the closet, pulled out his red markers, and got to work. 
The clean-cut, dark-suited man at the door introduced himself as Agent Sherman of the DPC – the Department of Population Control. “Thomas Mason?” he asked, looking down at some papers in his hand rather than at the human being over the threshold.
“Yes?” Papa answered.
“I need to see your life-case.”
The flashing electronic thing Sherman passed over the old wooden box whirred and emitted a variety of beeps and buzzes. “What are you doing?” Tom asked, feeling somewhat defensive about his single remaining candle.
“Initiating my command codes,” the agent answered condescendingly, after pushing a few final buttons. “No concern of yours.”
“It’s my case.”
“You admit that?”
“Of course!”
With a slight creak, the lid popped open. Sherman put the now-quiet gizmo he had been holding down on the bureau and opened the case fully. “Aha!” he exclaimed, looking inside.
“‘Aha’ what?”
The agent reached into the life-case and pulled out most of the candles. “Your birthday was yesterday?”
“Leaving you with how many candles?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“Yes, but I want to make sure you do,” Sherman continued. “How many?”
He shoved Billy’s altered candles in Tom’s face. “Then explain these?”
He squinted at the red things for a moment, but no thoughts came to him. “I. . . I don’t know.”
He handed the candles to Tom. “These are counterfeit – and not a very good job. There are severe penalties for trying to defraud the Department.”
“Fraud?” Tom rubbed his thumb along one of the candles. Some of the red ink came off onto his fingernail, revealing the white underneath. He chuckled a little.
Sherman was amazed and insulted. “You find this funny?”
“No, but I think I know what happened.”
“There’s your proof,” Tom told the grim-faced agent, pointing at the red marks on the little table. “I was a bit down yesterday. Billy must have sensed that.”
“My grandson. It looks like he took some candles from his case and gave them to me for my birthday. First, though, he colored them red.”
Sherman walked to Billy’s case and, with the device he had used earlier, opened it. He looked at the text on the thing’s screen. “Your grandson was born in New Year 42?”
“That’s right.”
The beeping stopped. “This case is fourteen candles short.”
“What did I tell you? I’ll wash the red off of these and put them back in Billy’s –”
“You won’t.”
“They’re ruined. Your grandson’s doctoring has destroyed their circuitry.”
“Then order some replacements.”
“Not possible.”
Tom took a few steps closer to the agent. “What do you mean?”
Sherman smirked, feeling superior. “You obviously don’t know the provisions of the Act that formed the DPC.”
“No? I was around before then. I got my life-case when I turned fifteen.”
“And it held enough candles to mark your birthdays until you reached eighty-eight?”
“That’s right.”
“One year from now.”
“I know.”
“That was the estimated life expectancy for a man born when you were. One year from today – if you still exist – your life will be terminated. The Department gives you that extra twenty-four hours to get your affairs in order.”
“How generous,” Tom added sarcastically.
“We struggled long and hard to make the plan as simple as possible for the masses. There must be an orderly flow of births and deaths. Your departure will allow a new life into the world.”
“What about Billy?”
“Where is he?”
“At school.”
“He should know the significance of what he has done.”
“He didn’t mean any trouble. He. . . He thought he was being nice to me on my birthday – giving me a gift.”
It was Sherman’s time to be sarcastic. “Of course.”
“Why can’t he get replacements?”
The agent took the colored candles from Tom and dropped them into his coat pocket. “Their circuitry is changed yearly. Your grandson received ninety-two candles on the day of his birth. That particular model’s details have been purged from the server, never to be made again. It’s a precaution against would-be criminals and hackers.”
“Are you saying that. . . that Billy’s going to lose fourteen years of his life because of this?”
“Precisely. He will live to be seventy-eight, unless he dies on his own before then.”
“He’s a kid!”
“Which is no excuse for ignorance of the law.”
“I want to talk with your superiors,” Tom adamantly told the agent.
“You can appeal my ruling to a magistrate, but it’s unlikely he will decide otherwise.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Room 117 in the Grand Hall.”
“He’s seven!” Lenore protested.
“That’s what I told the agent. He didn’t give a damn.” Papa took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and continued. “If I hadn’t been so down in the dumps about my birthday, Billy wouldn’t have –”
“What’s done is done. How do we correct it?”
“I can appeal.”
“Would that work?” Lenore asked hopefully.
“I doubt it. Sherman did too.” Tom cradled his index fingers before him and thought. “We’ll have to. . . circumvent the law.”
“How do we do that?”
We won’t.”
“Then who?”
“I’ve been around a long time, well before this administration’s population control thing began. There have always been people who – you might say – take matters into their own hands.”
Lenore was shocked. “Criminals?”
“Nothing violent. They’re more. . . ‘clever’ than anything.”
“How can we contact them?”
“I know how.”
“Just because I’m a sweet old man now doesn’t mean I always walked the straight and narrow.”
“You never told me this.”
“I never thought my connections from those days would be of use again.”
“These people can help Billy?”
“I’m hopeful. That’s what I’m clinging to – hope.”
Papa strained to hear the caller on the other end of the line through the static, whirrs, and pops. “Mr. Mason?” the gravelly male voice asked.
“Yes,” he answered, pressing the phone hard against his ear. “We have a really bad connection. Why don’t I call you back?”
“No,” the caller replied adamantly. “You’re looking for me. The name’s Sykes.”
Tom was pleased. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
“This line is being scrambled for our protection. My. . . source told me about your grandson’s problem.”
“Can you help him?”
“I’ll try to. We’ll need to meet somewhere.”
“You can come to the house.”
“Too obvious. Somewhere neutral.” Tom heard clicks of computer keyboard buttons among the purposeful noises. “You live in the old section of the city. I’ll look around for a meeting site and get back to you in a few days.”
“But –”
“I know: You think your problem is urgent.”
“It is!”
“It’s not. The years the Department wants to take from your grandson will come at the end of his life. He’s only six.”
“There’s time. We won’t dawdle, but we needn’t rush either. What’s urgent to you, sir, is your guilt. You feel responsible and want to correct this problem right now. I’ve had similar clients.”
“And helped them?”
“Of course,” Sykes answered. “A few days then.”
“Where can I contact you if –”
“You can’t. You’ll notice that your phone isn’t showing my number. My people and I haven’t stayed in business this long by being sloppy.”
With the administration’s long-standing focus on ignoring education, the school – all schools – had been allowed to fall into disrepair. A few had been repurposed as poverty-level housing, but most stood ignored and crumbling. Tom looked around, hoping he had not been seen by anyone. He opened the grime-covered front door of the elementary school, batting away some eye-level cobwebs with his cane, and proceeded to Room 36 for his meeting with Sykes.
Long-undisturbed dust fell on his balding head as he opened and closed the door. The sight of the classroom triggered thoughts of the past: Ancient school memories – the small desks, the blackboards, the Palmer Method upper- and lower-case letters lining the walls – came rushing back to him, now covered in the filth of the present. He looked around but saw no one. He took a few paces forward. “Hello!” he called into the purposeless, echoing room. “I’m here!”
A thin, goateed man stepped slowly out from a dark corner. “Mr. Mason?” he asked.
“Yes,” Tom replied. “Mr. Sykes?”
“That’s right.” He strode to his potential client and shook his hand.
“A strange meeting place you picked,” Tom told him.
“We should be unobserved.” Sykes pulled up a dusty chair and indicated that Tom should do the same. The younger man took an electronic pad from his coat pocket, its screen already shining. “Your grandson’s name?” he asked.
“Billy. . . William Mason.”
Some button presses. “Born in the old city?”
Papa nodded. “Central Medical.”
The man’s long fingers danced over the device’s keys. “New Year 42?”
“Yes.” After a few more button presses, Sykes turned the device’s screen to Papa. “Hey, that’s him!” Tom said, surprised to see a recent picture of Billy smiling back at him. “What’s that you’re on?”
“The DPC’s main database.”
“The government isn’t as good at security as it should be. Let’s see here: Life expectancy: Ninety-two years. So, he’s down to seventy-eight now.”
“Does he know what’s happening?”
“No. My daughter and I decided not to tell him. He wouldn’t understand.”
“I agree.”
“I thanked him for the candles.”
“The Department may investigate him soon.”
“A child?”
“They don’t care. The agents focus on matters involving older citizens first – I guess in the interest of time.” Papa’s face showed his surprise. “It might not happen at all. You’ve been visited by an agent, and they’ve already taken those years away.”
“Can you help him?”
“That’s what I’m checking,” Sykes continued, pressing many buttons. “The candles in his life-case are white?”
“Excuse me?”
“Children born then were given candles designated as Model 147I.”
“You have some of those?” Tom asked eagerly.
“But we can make some.”
“You can?”
“Very few people born when your grandson was have passed on.”
“Then how –”
“We have other candles from citizens who have died.”
“How’d you get those?”
“Theft. . . at least that’s the official story. Some were sold to us in secret.”
“Surely the DPC’s deactivated them.”
“Yes, but we have ways of bringing them back online.”
 “Can you make fourteen replacements?”
 For what seemed like an eternity to Tom, Sykes pressed button after button on his pad, checking the inventory. “Yes,” he said at last. Papa sighed in relief. “The cost is $14,000 – payable on delivery.”
“Fourteen. . . th-thousand?”
“Cash. A paper trail’s risky.” Sykes noticed the look on his client’s wrinkled face. “Too rich for your blood?”
“I. . . I didn’t expect. . .”
“A thousand dollars per candle, less than three bucks a day.”
“How long will it take to. . . to make them?”
“About two weeks. It’s very exacting work. Can you get the money together by then?”
Tom knew it would be difficult, but he had to. “Yes. Yes, I will.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
“They won’t be investigating Billy by then, will they?”
“Not in two weeks. If it happens at all, it’ll take months.”
“Sherman seemed pretty tough.”
“Is he the agent who came to your house?”
“I’ve tangled with him before.” Sykes stood and assured Tom, “Not to worry. If he causes any trouble, we have ways of. . . ‘dealing’ with him.”
In the abandoned warehouse that served as their operations center, Sykes approached his friend and employee Alexi, who, along with twenty other people, was busily working. The boss glanced at the image of the slowly turning candle on the computer screen. “Is that for the Masons?”
“Uh huh.”
“How’s it coming?”
“About two-thirds done,” he continued, stretching in his chair. “The 147I is tough to re-create.”
“That’s why I gave the job to my best man.”
Alexi chuckled and replied, “Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“Any trouble with the DPC database?”
A piercing alarm sounded. Their security had been breached! “Destroy what you can!” Sykes called to his panicked operatives. “Wipe your hard drives, and get the hell out of here!”
His people began began following their orders just as the room’s locked doors were smashed in.
“Agents have raided a warehouse in the old city where criminals were conducting illegal, for-profit candle-making activities,” the news anchor read emotionlessly. “DPC Agent Sherman reports that Elias Sykes, a known lawbreaker, was killed in a shootout at the scene. Authorities are hopeful that seized computers will yield information about the group’s activities and clients, though, the DPC tells us, the criminals destroyed what they could – by fire and other means – when they learned agents were on their way.”
His heart pounding, Papa turned off the TV.
The office was too small for its employees and the visiting citizens in need of their help. It was loud, not well ventilated, and smelled of disinfectant.
“Welcome to the Department of Population Control’s old city branch,” the red-haired female clerk said by rote.
Billy Mason, now older than he cared to remember or believe, falteringly replied, “Thank you,” handed her his forms, and gently took an unoffered seat beside the desk.
The clerk did some fast typing and asked, “You’re the son of Lenore and Harold Mason, both deceased?”
“That’s right,” he answered, balancing his shaky, liver-spotted hands on the curve of his well-worn cane.
“Born in New Year 72.”
The clerk poked a finger at her screen. “72, sir.”
“That’s wrong.”
“Are you saying we make mistakes?” she asked, shocked.
“Maybe just one,” he answered with a grin. “If I was born in NY72, I’d be sixty-eight years old. Don’t I look older?”
“I. . .”
“Be honest.”
“Your records list several chronic health issues. Those are bound to take their toll on a body.”
“I’m ninety-eight years old.”
“Impossible. In NY72, male life expectancy was ninety-three. You can’t be older.”
“I know my own age.”
The clerked typed some more. Her goal was not to help her client, but to prove him wrong and send him on his way. “You have twenty-five candles in your life-case.”
“It’s empty.”
“That’s impossible. We would have received notification.”
“Something went wrong.”
“The system is foolproof.”
“Come to the house. I’ll show you the case is empty.”
“We don’t have the staff to send agents on wild goose chases.”
“I’ll bring the case to you then.”
“All life-cases are secured to their designated stations. Any attempt to remove them will result in alarm activations here.”
“Which would bring an agent?” Billy asked slyly.
“It’s against the law to attempt that.”
“But –”
“Enough!” she exclaimed. “Allowing, for a moment, the very idea that the DPC has made an error, why would you tell us when it means the end of your life?”
“It’s no fun anymore,” he answered her, his eyes welling. “I want to die, to be free of the pain.”
“That will come in due time.”
“If I had the courage, I’d kill myself. . . but I don’t.”
“If you make it to ninety-three, we will see to your quick and painless demise.”
“You’re not listening!”
“Quite the contrary: I’ve heard enough.” She turned and called into the waiting area, “Next!”
His tears starting to flow, Billy rose gingerly on his cane and exited the DPC building.
All the way home, he saw opportunities to bring his death: A speeding car, an open manhole cover, a drunk man looking for a fight outside a dive bar. He could bring himself to take advantage of none of these.
He got home, made a little dinner, and went to bed. In the morning, he awoke angrily. . . another day older, with no end in sight.

Author's Bio:

Mike Murphy has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. He’s won a Columbine Award and a dozen Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories.

His prose work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. In 2015, his script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title DARK CHOCOLATE. In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.

Mike keeps a blog at