The Last Living Soul


You are the last hope for humanity
Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt [CC-BY-SA])

3982 words · 19 min read

I knew. For a long time, I knew I was in part a creation of someone called the scientist. Since the scientist was responsible for the existence of me and others of my own type, a few of us regarded the scientist with a god-like reverence, while others held him/her in utter contempt. No one knew him/her: there was no photograph, painted portrait, nor busts of the scientist, and we had no idea regarding his/her name, and whether this person was a man or woman.

I was told that lives in general were the most difficult in the last few million years. But what do I know? I knew nothing about the last few million years to be able to judge. So when my mother told me so, I nodded, not out of my agreement, but out of my respect, and I suspected she didn’t actually know either. She was not my real mother in the former sense of the word. Even though I had lived inside the womb of my mother, I had no relation to her whatsoever, and so as all of my own type. She didn’t even bother to give me a proper name, but instead call me Zero Zero Zero One.

I spent all of my time inside a huge underground building when I was small, but I didn’t know what “underground” meant until I was finally allowed to get above ground to have my first stroll in the unknown when I was ten or eleven. Only then did I discover that the place I grew up in was just a huge cave dug from the side of a hill; a very well-built and huge cave, for sure — inside were multiple levels, with reinforced concrete ceilings, electricity generators, fuel storage, water supply, green houses, laboratories, libraries, huge store rooms, and places for us to live in, while the outside was a very solid and reinforced concrete-and-steel structure protruding from the hill, with a large entrance door leading to a long tunnel to the main section of the building — but it was just a cave. When I pushed open that large door for the first time to go outside, I was shocked by how bitter the cold was, and even though it was supposed to be in day time, I couldn’t see the sun but only grey sky and dirty snow. But I also knew, from that moment on, that the world as I knew it was just the underground building, and now the world becomes much greater.


Other than the two employees on duty at the cave, my mother was the only person who didn’t die on that fateful day — she ran inside just in time to escape the fire that was engulfing the whole of the known world of her time — and they became the only three people from the old world that had survived. For a very long time, neither she nor Ramesh nor Beth could bear to tell me what sort of disaster it was; my mother, in particular, always became very emotional even at the thought of it, so I had never pressed her on that. But the evidence of the burning could be seen even years after it: when I went outside for the first time, burn marks were visible on the concrete and steel structure outside our cave, and a few miles away, I saw tree, corpses of animals and humans reduced to ashes, lying on the dirty ground and half covered by coal-black soil and dirty snow. That day, I went out with my mother and one of my sisters, and it was the first time they left the cave too. My sister, Zero Zero Zero Two, and I were curious and inquisitive: we both picked up tree branches that weren’t too burned, which were difficult to come by, and started poking around. Our mother, however, seemed frightened as she looked for something.

“What are you looking for?” I asked her.

She did not answer, and she kept looking about as if possessed. Her eyes seemed worried and hollow, her back was bent forward, and her hands were trembling. She knelt next to a collapsed and thoroughly burned tree, under which was dirty snow and ashes, and sobbed.

“This is where he must have died,” she said.

“Who?”

“He escaped with me, but he wounded himself and couldn’t keep up.”

“My father?”

“If he made it, he would have been your father, but you wouldn’t be you, would you?”

I nodded. I was too dumb to understand what that even meant.

It was a few days later when the other two survivors of the disaster told me what the disaster was: it was just like dinosaurs.

“What are dinosaurs?” I asked. I had never heard of them before.

“Never mind what they are,” Ramesh said. “They all died millions of years ago when an asteroid hit the earth and burned the world.”

“What is an asteroid?”

“Well, a massive rock.”

“So, the world got hit by a huge rock again when… you know… everyone died?”

“Sort of,” Beth said. “We knew a rock was coming our way, but no one cared because every one was reassured that some computer programs running on auto-pilot would do the right thing and shoot the rock to deflect it.”

“And did they shoot it?”

“They did, but perhaps that wasn’t a good idea, or perhaps it might be better off just leave that rock alone. If they didn’t shoot it, the rock would hit the earth in one piece. Now, the rock hit the earth in thousands pieces. In the end, the world was burned up anyway.”

“Why did the rock burn the world? Did it come in on fire?”

“No, kid. They came in high speed and only caught fire because of the friction with air,” Ramesh said. “See, Beth? Whoever came up with this idea of building this shithole to save the humanity was a fucking moron. There’s just no way they can save our world as we know it!”

No one had mentioned “saving the world” to me before that. At that point, he seemed annoyed enough by my questions that I didn’t dare ask him, though I suppose I wouldn’t understand a thing even if he explained. I was fifteen or so when I was regarded as capable of understanding what the cave was all about: inside the cave was everything ever existed in the old world, and most of them were now dead, waiting to be re-created. I was one such creation, and I was meant to keep on recreating more. Three levels below ground, there was a huge room with several compartments with refrigerators running on electricity generated by a backup system that ran on backup energy source that could last for at most thirty years at the rate we were consuming power. Inside that frozen space was everything: seeds, genes from animals, and human. Those were material from which the last of us would restart humanity.

Ramesh often said I was too dumb for the mission of preserving humanity, and he wasn’t wrong, because I did know nothing, and most of the books stored inside the library were beyond my comprehension.

“Be fair, Ramesh,” Beth came to my defence. “This place wasn’t designed for that kind of catastrophe. When we were down to just three people, we were hopeless.”

Ramesh did know a lot more than anyone in the cave did, as he was, after all, a man of science. But he also knew the limit of his knowledge, and he said he couldn’t possible save the world himself either. For one, he wasn’t a biologist — someone who studied living things — but an armchair physicist who couldn’t do anything when one of the nanocomputers broke down fifteen years after the crash. He wished he knew enough quantum mechanics to understand why the computer failed.

“What difference does it make if you know how your nanocompter works? We don’t have any equipment capable of repairing it even if you know how to.”

“You are right… you are fucking right…” Ramesh said. “That’s why this idea of building this shithole is so shitty. We just can’t recover from such a catastrophe.”

My mother was the only person who was enthusiastic about the project. Although Beth was at a child-bearing age for the first few years after the crash, she had never got herself pregnant because, like Ramesh, she didn’t believe in the project, and she chose to work there only because her job paid quite well for the amount of work she had to do. Upon learning the objective of the construction of the cave, my mother took it upon herself to create to the new generation of human beings, much to Ramesh’s chagrin. Since he wouldn’t care to show her around, Beth, on my mother’s insistence, brought her to the super cold storage to inject embryos into her womb. It took a few trials to succeed, and I was the outcome of the first successful trial. The scientist copied and stored the genetic make-up of someone I didn’t know, along with a few hundreds of others, and my mother helped the scientist duplicate them. After giving birth to me and getting through first two years of my life, my mother went on to replicate six more people before she was exhausted by the burden of child-bearing. She devoted her energy to raise all seven of us, and she even taught us how to read so that we could read all the books we want inside the library of the cave, where knowledge was stored.

“Without knowledge, mankind is nothing,” she would say. “You have to carry on giving birth to a new generation and propagate the knowledge.”

Ramesh and, to a lesser degree, Beth, believed it would be all futile.

“But we can’t just stop!” my mother protested.

“So what are we supposed to do now? Tell them to fuck each other and make babies?”

“Shush! We have kids here, wait until they’re old enough to talk about making babies!”

“Yeah but what are we supposed to do when they are old enough? Tell the brothers and sisters to fuck each other?”

“You know they are not really brothers and sisters.”

“That’s still creepy as hell,” Ramesh said.

After that, Ramesh put everything on his plate into his mouth and went away while the rest of us, all of whom slow-eaters, quieted down and continued to eat what we grew inside our greenhouse. We had been growing food from the seeds stored in the vault. It wasn’t difficult to grow enough food for ten people, as the facility was designed for a few dozens people, not ten. But the greenhouse and the soil condition only allowed us to grow very limited kinds of plants, so we ate the same kinds of food every day for years and years. For those of us born after the crash, we would never know what it was like to be eating different kinds of food every meal. But for Beth, having the same thing over and over again was torturous.

“Sometimes I just crave for some steak or something,” she would say every so often.

“What is steak?” my sister, Zero Zero Zero Four, asked.

“Oh, what do you know kid? Beef, steak! Meat from cattle. You know cattle?”

“No.”

“Animals! We used to eat animals!”

“It’s healthier being vegetarian,” my mother said.

“But not this kind of vegetarian,” Beth said. “There used to be salad, and there used to be different dressings. Now? Salt and sugar! That’s all we have! Why didn’t the people who built this place at least store some oil?”

“And no coffee, that’s torturous,” Ramesh sighed.

“Will we be able to grow stuff outside one day?” Beth asked. “I guess if we can, we may at least have a little more variety.”

“Can you see anything growing outside? If nothing’s growing outside, nothing will.”

“It’s been ten years now, why’s there still nothing outside?” my mother asked. “I can’t even see a mould or fungus or something like that, you know, the very simple life form.”

“That’s hardly surprising. No one knows exactly what fell to the earth after they shot the bloody rock. Did the planetary defense system shoot the rock with nuclear weapon? If they did, the whole surface of the earth won’t be habitable for anyone for another thousands of years, human, animal, and plant alike.”

Listening to the people from the old world talking about their old days always evoked my curiosity. Their world was so much larger than mine, their stories so much better than mine, and their life consisted of so much more than mine, that I wished I could live in their world instead, and I often listen with pleasure to their late night chats about things that didn’t survive the crash. Even listening to their rants about things they used to hate was far more interesting than my own life. When Beth talked about how much she sometimes which she could eat meat and how much she hated a thing called Tofu, what I took to heart wasn’t what food she liked or disliked, but the fact that I could only eat the same plant over and over again; when my mother recalled being allergic to something called a cat, what I later remembered most wasn’t the fact that she was allergic to cats, but her description of what a cat looked like; when Ramesh told of the story of his miserable life at college, what I paid most attention to wasn’t his miserable life, but his life at college. I didn’t know what a college was, and I think I will never understand what it is, but I would go on to picture in my head that I would go to a college like the one Ramesh went to, and that my life would probably be as miserable, but I thought about my would-be miserable college life with joy.

“You are such a dreamer,” Ramesh said. “Stop daydreaming and start working man!”

The fact was, none of us were good at what we were supposed to do: to grow food and to perform all the mundane tasks necessary to make the place function. Ramesh was an armchair physicist, not a farmer; Beth was a secretary, not a farmer; my mother was a teacher, not a farmer; they were neither good at farming nor interested in it. In our little world of ten people, we used those instruction manuals left by the people building the place on what to plant and how to plant. They were well-worn and becoming increasingly illegible, but we were still using them after more than ten years, and none of us seemed to be able to master enough of their content to farm without referring to the instruction manuals.

“I wish there were farmers among the frozen embryos,” Beth once said.

“No, I couldn’t find any,” my mother replied.

And she was right, as I have confirmed myself: just outside the cold room storing the genetic makeup of the selected hundreds of mankind was a large shelve, on which there were a collection of large files that held records of the lives of those people were duplicated and stored. I once looked at the file that belonged to the person to whom my existence owed. There was no name on the file, just a long serial number and a picture of him. He had my eyes, my nose, my ears, my lips, my face, my hair, and everything. Underneath his picture was the story of his life in the form of a list. He was once a student of a high school, then an art college, in which he studied art, do some paintings, and sold some of them at very good prices.

“Whoever came up this idea of copying part of humanity as a backup to save the world seemed to have picked the worst possible kinds of people for our kind of the world,” Beth said during dinner after I saw the file of my original. “A painter would be among the least likely to survive in this world.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Look at yourself! You are so weak and always daydreaming! They should have got someone more of the survivor type, you know: soldiers, or something like that. What’s good being a painter now? You can’t even find a piece of canvas.”

“It’s a miracle, if you ask me,” Ramesh then interjected, “that none of you have died.”

“Was it that easy to die in the past?” Zero Zero Zero Three asked.

“In the world we were once in, no. But that’s all because of the very advanced medical sciences stuff that kept people alive. Before medical sciences were good, many people didn’t even grow as old as you are now!” Ramesh said and pointed at me.

I was eighteen at the time.


The next day, on our monthly expedition out to the nothingness in search for signs of life, my little brother Zero Zero Zero Seven fell over on a piece of rock and injured himself. I ran to him as he cried for help; his ankle was sprained, and his knee was bleeding. I carried him on my back and returned, ending the expedition before we could even walk a mile from our cave. When I lay my little brother on a stretcher, I collapsed to my bed soon after from exhaustion, and didn’t hear of anything about my little brother until I woke up the next day: he was ill, and I saw that for myself.

“I’m not sure if we should be happy or not,” Ramesh said.

“What are you talking about?” my mother asked. “He’s sick, how can this be good?”

“No one among us has ever got sick from being injured outside.”

“So?”

“He’s infected, so there might be life outside, at last. Microbes, at least. Or maybe more.”

“If there’s some forms of life out there, does that mean we can finally grow food outside?” Beth asked.

“I don’t think that’s what I would be thinking right now.”

At first, it didn’t look like anything serious. Every once in a while, we got discomforts here and there, and they always went away. My brother might look a bit worse than having those usual illnesses — his wound was more red and swollen than the usual wound we were used to seeing, his forehead was burning, and he was too weak to stand and walk for too long — but no one seemed to find it serious until a few days later when his illness got more worse. Now, my brother was lying there in a delirium. His wound was even redder and more swollen, his face was flushed, and his muscles spasmed every few minutes. I had never seen anything like this before.

“Why is he reacting so badly?”

“Because this is something new. Whatever makes him sick, we have never encountered inside here or outside. Whatever infects him can infect the rest of us too. If he’s defenceless against it, the rest of us are all as defenceless against it,” Ramesh said calmly, but his face was filled with worries.

My little brother died after an agonising week, and by then two of my sisters were already bed-bound.

“Is there really nothing we can do?” my mother begged. “Please Ramesh, you are the smartest one here! Help us!”

“What can I do? We have no medicine for them,” he said in a low voice.

“Are we giving up on them?” my mother cried. “If we give up on them, we give up on humanity!”

“I’ve given up on humanity for a long time!” Ramesh said. “This can never work, with just three of us! Never! I knew it from the beginning! It only works in your own fantasy! If I weren’t as scared of death as I am, I would have killed myself long ago!”

And it was Ramesh who got sick next. Knowing well that he was the next to die, he beckoned me to his deathbed.

“I had a son,” he murmured. “He was then at your age. He was about to go to college when that rock hit the earth. He was like you. Such a dreamer.”

I said nothing.

“You would have done well in the world I was in,” he continued. “It’s unfortunate for you to be born here.”

“Good bye, Number One.”

Being an elderly man now, he was already weak even before the infection, but being weak has the advantage of dying a relatively quick death: he died within a day after he first fallen ill.


M y mother was the last of the old world survivor to die. Before she died, she asked me to sit by her side. By that time, I had become ill too, though I was the least sick of them.

“I am sorry,” my mother said.

“For what?”

“You shouldn’t have been born. Ramesh was right. It’s all pointless.”

I said nothing.

“I want to you forgive me.”

“For what?”

“For giving birth to you.”

I said nothing. I guess I could have said I would forgive her without actually meaning it in order to make her feel better in the last minutes of her life, but I couldn’t, because I found no reason to forgive her; but not so much that I resent her for my existence.


In books stored in the library and in stories told by the three old-world survivors, there were always people of the past, and they were remembered for what they did for the world and mankind, whether good or bad. They had all died long ago, but even at the end of humanity, they were still being mentioned for their achievements; in the library of the cave, we had books by writers of the old world, and we read them till the end of humanity; their lives and their works meant something to the future. But we had no future. No one will ever remember me. Whether I was fortunate or not to have been born meant nothing to no one.


I was determined not to die inside the cave, so I set out to leave the cave when I still had some strength left. The journey was difficult, but I made it just in time before I was too tired to stay upright. I crawled out of the door, rolled down a small slope, and lay on the piece of large rock. It was the early hour of the morning, the sky was still quite dark, but a beam of orange light emerged from the horizon.

I had never seen anything like it before. All my life out and about that area, sunrise had always been grey and unspectacular. I thought I was dreaming, or hallucinating, but it was real. My mind then swung between consciousness and unconsciousness for some hours, until the sky had turned blue and bright. For a brief moment, I became the most conscious for my entire existence, and although I remained pinned to that rock by my own failing strength, I could see and hear most clearly.

I turned my head to my right, and I saw something was coming towards me. It approached me.

An small animal.

Its two eyes stared at me, its nose was twitching, and it walked to me furtively without a sound. Its nose touched my face for a brief moment, then it circled around me for some time before going away.

I turned my head towards the sky again and closed my eyes. The light was so strong that it penetrated through my eyelids and gave my eyes and reddish yellow vision.

I smiled.

 Short Stories    25 Mar, 2016
 Fiction    Science Fiction    Dystopia    Short Stories  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2018

Peter Y. Chuang is a Hong Kong-born novelist and short story writer who’s lived in London and calls Berlin his spiritual home. He has completed the manuscript of a literary science fiction novel, Twenty Forty-Seven,” and is currently re-writing another literary novel, Only You Know What It Means.”