He grasped for a pillow, covering his face. The continuous flow of visuals and coinciding audio left him paralyzed:
Good waking, chosen America! It is day 223 of year 2051. Earth's surface temperature remains at a high of 170 degrees. The ultraviolet radiation index remains at a 15 out of 15. Today's ozone depletion rate is eighty-nine percent, a one percent increase from day 217. Expect minor delays on the high-speed rails, as construction for our new underground transportation system continues. And remember: if you're not living underground, well, you're not living! Now, a quick message from our sponsors.
Felix rubbed his palms over his eyelids, the morning bulletin piercing his vision and hearing.
Drone-acquired images of earth's surface were projected into Felix's implantation device. A desolate wasteland, a far cry from the surface he once knew.
The reporter's voice was too calm, too perfect.
Even if Felix closed his eyes, he couldn't escape the ensuing thirty-five minutes of advertisements: emerging solar power companies, injections to increase work production and new light simulators.
Felix finally swung his legs over the cot, reaching for a glass on his nightstand. He gargled water and grabbed his vitamin-D supplement. Inspecting the yellow capsule, Felix dropped it back into the government-issued bottle. He then scribbled on his bedside notepad:
83 days - no vit. D.
Before rising, he emptied the remaining water into his potted plant. Dried leaves clung to wiry stems. A memento.
Stepping into his wardrobe, Felix followed prompts on the holographic screen and selected his light-reflecting work uniform. Jumpsuit, boots and a hardhat equipped with a headlight. The attire was ghost white.
Looking at his reflection, Felix's eyes began to swell with tears. The incessant babbling of advertisers muffled his deep, sporadic breaths.
As Felix wiped his forearm across his eyes, he placed his plant on his cot. He sighed, removing a marble vase from his nightstand. Felix ran his fingers across the names etched into the marble: Miri & Jason Reslin. He laid the vase next to his plant.
"This is all I have left, Miri. I'm sorry." Felix stepped away. "See you soon, sunshine."
Felix opened his reinforced steel door. High-speed rails he had helped build snaked through the underground caverns. Trains sped across these rails, shuttling the chosen across the dark expanse.
Felix stepped from his doorstep onto the boarding platform. To his left was a group of construction workers waiting for a work shuttle. To his right was an emergency ladder, stretching to the bottom of the caverns.
Felix turned on his headlight and climbed down the emergency ladder. He maneuvered the tunnels with ease, remembering the construction layouts. It had been four years since he took the job and descended into earth. Although he was a lower class wage worker, Felix knew construction. He was useful. He was lucky.
The hardhat headlight was a pinprick in the tunnel's darkness. Every couple minutes, a train would blaze past Felix, shaking the foundation. He wondered if the passengers saw him. It was either a train full of suits or hardhats.
Felix glanced upward to see a boarding platform overlooking shopping hubs. The same shopping hubs he had helped build. He imagined the elite placing orders on holographic screens, waiting for a drone to arrive with their merchandise. Felix realized he had never actually seen manufacturing centers for all the useless things those people consumed. He shook his head and continued onward.
Miri always enjoyed shopping, buying gifts for the family with no special occasion. Felix remembered taking her to a real life mall, one of the few left in 2043. That was before everything began to burn. Before the American government began building underground. Before they asked Felix to descend, and promised his wife and child would follow.
Felix hadn't even been with his family when the radiation escalated and the temperatures skyrocketed. Then they sealed the entrances. All he knew of the surface were the images projected into his implantation device each morning.
A news bulletin flashed into vision, along with the reporter's unsettling voice:
Chosen America, this is a reminder to ingest your vitamin-D supplement daily. With surface conditions absolutely uninhabitable, and sun exposure impossible, studies have shown increased depression, hallucinations, decreased productivity...
Felix tried his best to ignore the annoyance.
As he strode beneath the rail lines, Felix noticed a light ahead. It was the light he was looking for. According to the timestamp in his implantation device, he had been walking for almost an hour. He was late to his assigned work site, and he imagined police were searching his living space at that very moment.
The sunrays shone down from the high ceiling of the caverns and illuminated the rocky terrain below. Dozens of construction workers and their assistive bots were on the scene. Felix jogged toward the shouting and drilling, smiling at the sight.
"Sir, excuse me." Felix tapped the shoulder of an older man in a construction uniform, his belly hanging over his belt.
"Talk to my bot, kid." The rotund man stared forward, analyzing data in his implantation device.
Felix glanced at the man's assistive bot. "I don't need a bot."
"Shouldn't you get back to work? Productivity has been down for several days, and now we got this damned sun leak." The man pointed to the light penetrating the cavern ceiling, continuing to stare into the abyss.
"I'm a site inspector!" Felix shouted over the mechanical buzz.
The man jumped, facing Felix. "You don't look like no site inspector to me. Where's your bot?"
"I'm a site inspector from the other side. Heard about the sun leak yesterday. They assigned me to give a report. Where's the site manager?"
"On break, in the decompression zone." The man shook his head. "You'll have to wait for him to get back."
Just as Felix planned. "You complain about productivity, and then make me wait for the site manager to get back from a zero gravity bar?"
The man looked away, waiting for his assistive bot to respond.
"I'll be thirty minutes," Felix said. "Just have to take the lift to the source of the leak and check the dimensions."
"You got proper protection? Last month I heard about a guy whose skin burnt right off. Goin' to the source is like a suicide mission nowadays."
"I'm protected," Felix responded. "I'll need a lift with tools, might need to chip off some rock for my report. See why we're leaking."
The man waddled toward a lift on the cavern walls. "Over here."
Felix couldn't believe it was happening. Just yesterday he was lying on his cot, the cavern soot covering his face, struggling to breathe. It was in that moment he realized a sun leak was his chance.
"You can take this one." The man showed Felix to a propulsion lift system floating just above the ground. "Those blasters on the bottom are serious, so hang on. You'll be up there in no time."
"Yeah, thanks," Felix said, checking the lift's tool kit for the appropriate drill. "You ever get tired of this work?"
"What're you talkin' about?" The man was staring again, eyes fixed to the left of Felix's lift. His gaze was lifeless.
"Be careful, buddy. You've gotten this far. Don't wanna ruin an opportunity like site inspector."
Felix stepped onto the hovering lift. He aligned his feet with the weight sensors, beginning his ascent.
The construction workers below became ant-sized creatures, their assistive bots silver dots in the darkness. Towering above the workers, trains sped by on the high-speed rails. Felix could almost see the passengers. He imagined them sipping lattes, marketed as all-organic coffee bean but engineered in an underground laboratory.
But Felix was above the rails now. He was above the construction workers. He was above the elite.
Felix had reached the sun leak. The sunlight emerged from a small imperfection in the surface. Well, an imperfection in the eyes of those workers, of the elite. He readied the drill from the lift's tool kit, making sure to avoid sun beams in the process. He wanted to climb to the surface first, and see the sun as he remembered it. One last time.
Felix sat down on the lift. He activated his implantation device and browsed the "memory" function. Pictures of the surface, his old home, his child. Video footage of his wedding, just nine years earlier.
Suddenly, another news bulletin scrambled the memories:
Dear Americans, we have an ozone depletion rate update...
Felix stood and shouldered the drill. The tip of the power tool began spinning, its vibrations moving through Felix's torso. Felix thrust the spinning drill toward the sun leak, breaking off large chunks of rock and dirt.
Shouts from below echoed up to Felix's position. He could hear bots taking flight, closing in with speed.
Once the sun leak was large enough, Felix engaged the "voice log" function of his implantation device. He spoke fast.
BEGIN - Voice Log of Felix Reslin - Recovered from Implantation Device #3247311 - Extracted Day 224 of year 2051:
I am Felix Reslin. This is day 223 of year 2051. I can't stop thinking about the surface. I haven't seen sunlight in four years. I wasn't sent underground; it was my choice. But what choice did you give me? A construction worker. I chose to descend because I wanted to live. But this isn't living. This isn't living.
I can't stop thinking about Miri and Jason. You promised me my family. And I have nothing left. I have nothing left to give.
Bots are coming. I'm climbing out.
*PAUSE IN TRANSMISSION - 15 SECONDS*
I see plants. There are plants...
*PAUSE IN TRANSMISSION - 22 SECONDS*
I'm not burning, and I'm breathing. I could be dead.
*PAUSE IN TRANSMISSION - 11 SECONDS*
Are you military?
They said there was no one. How are we here?
Yes, I climbed. I work in construction.
How are we not burning? The depletion rate is almost ninety percent. How are -