“How many times will curiosity kill the cat before the cat stops being curious?” The old man asked.
Wrinkled skin dripped down his face, webbed and dry. Age spots grew like mold on his cheeks, chin, and forehead. They seemed to grow larger as I stared at him, transfixed. Unable to avert my gaze. It wasn’t fear that held my eyes but curiosity. Yes, he had hit the nail on the head. The hammer was blunt.
“Nine, I suppose,” I replied, my voice crackling through the speaker system of my helmet.
“Nine, heh,” The old man laughed. A weak, feeble laugh that turned into a cough. “Nine, yes, I remember that one from one of your friends.” His head tilted to his side. I could hear the tendons in his neck strain. “Tell me, traveler. What happens after the ninth time?”
“Nothing,” I answered. “Cats only have nine lives.”
“Nothing!” He croaked out another chuckle. “Nothing indeed! But why would the cat keep returning to the source of its interest if it knew a final death could be imminent?”
“Hmmm,” I rubbed the glove of my suit against my helmet, forgetting my inability to scratch my own head in these conditions. “Curiosity, right? Is that what you want me to say? A cat is curious by nature. It simply can’t help itself.”
The old man smiled, lips cracking as he did.
“Do you know why I ask these questions, young one?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “Yes, I think I do.”
“And if I were to tell you what you seek would be the death of you–as it was for the last eight of your compatriots—what then?”
“I have a mission to complete,” I replied. “I mean to see it through. If not I, another, will come in my place.”
A spark of something lit within the man’s black eyes. Though it burned green like the scales of a viper, I couldn’t help but think it was fire. Fire of the spirit, perhaps. His smile expanded, revealing rows of thin teeth, yellowed and brittle by god knows how many eons he’s sat at this door.
“Then, by all means,” the old man took a step to the side. The first step he’d taken since I’d arrived. His leg shattered on impact with the ground, turning to dust and floating away with the wind as if it never existed. The dust began to eat away at the old man, consuming his being. I bent down in a hurry and tried to offer him aid, but he waved me away. “My purpose has been served.” The words started to fade with him. “May luck favor you differently, Number Nine.” he paused, the dust climbing to his face. “Though, I doubt it will.”
The old man was gone.
I was alone on the barren rock that we call the Moon. The last of my team. In the lowest chamber of The Depository—named by one of the astronauts who made the discovery, for he believed this to be a storage unit of sorts used by the whatever beings built the subterranean building. There was no air here. No gravity. How the old man lived is a question I didn’t know the answer to, which frightened me. Sent a cold down my spine that made the frost of space feel tropical.
Was he even a man?
No answer revealed itself to me in the grand chamber. Its walls of silvered metal were decorated with fractal designs so complex, one could only stare at them for so long before receiving a migraine that not even an Excedrin addiction could cure. The answers were to be found behind the door the old man had guarded since the first cell split on Earth. Since there was life to be claimed in this corner of the universe. Maybe even before life here was a thought. I thought an answer would be behind the door.
I was wrong.
“So, you found a way inside, then?” A voice asked through the speaker in the room I sat in now.
The voice spoke to me through a microphone in the quarantine room in which I had just retold my tale. I was naked, covered only in machines that read my vitals, and searched for anything foreign I may have brought back with me from the depths of the moon. There’d be nothing found, not yet at least, but I didn’t bother to point out the lack of necessity of their search. It would only frighten them more than they already were, poor things.
“Yes,” I answered. “The door opened for me once the old man turned to cosmic ash.”
“Cosmic ash?” They asked. “I thought you said he turned to dust.”
“Well, at the time of the story, that’s what I thought,” I said it as though they should’ve known. “Now, I know better.”
“Can you tell us what cosmic ash is, then?”
“Sure, I can.”
There was a pause, and some static before the voice asked, “As in, can you tell us right now?”
“Of course,” I smiled. “It’s dust.”
Someone cursed. The microphone clicked off. I knew they wouldn’t like that answer, but what else could I do but tell the truth? More detail would do them no good, but I hate to disappoint.
“All dust is cosmic ash. The yeast of creation within our universe and all realities. It’s a coveted resource, found on life-baring planets, I said, unprompted. “The ones who built The Depository had a different name for it.”
The speaker clicked back on. “What was it?”
“Oh, it’s impossible for me to utter their tongue without my head exploding into a pile of pulp on your pristine double-sided mirror, but trust me when I tell you that cosmic ash is the most translatable form of the word.”
“Why should we trust you, Dave?” A new voice asked. A sense of familiarity rode upon her words. “You haven’t spoken about what you’ve found down there since we got your distress beacon three months ago. Now, suddenly, you tell us your story. An absolutely ludicrous story, mind you, and you tell it to us as if you just got back today under completely normal circumstances.”
“Dr. Morrison, is that you?” I asked.
“Yes, Dave, it’s me.”
“Please call me Number Nine.” I smiled.
“Why would I do that? You still haven’t told us why we should trust you.”
“There are things about people that can never change, but a name is not one of them.” I stood up and walked toward the window. “I have a new one now: Number Nine. He gave it to me.”
“Who was he Dav—Number Nine? Was it that old man at the door? Who was he? What did you find when you went inside?” I could hear the panic in her voice. The tension from the other room was palpable. Savory and sweet.
“You’re so very human. So very predictable.” I rolled my neck around. The bones cracked one-by-one. “Just as I once was, standing in the bowels of the moon. Unlocking a door that had a living personification of a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign.”
“What did you find inside, Number Nine?”
My body started to convulse.
“Number Nine? Can you hear us, Number Nine?”
I could hear them but couldn’t respond. I no longer had control. Just like a fish out of water has no choice but to flop on a deck until death takes it back to the sea. I was that fish. Only, I brought death with me.
“Jesus Christ, someone get in there and help him!”
It was then that the darkness began to seep through my pores.
The Ash Eater.
It flooded through my eyes and ears. Every orifice on my body became an exhaust port for a being long-buried by a species with ten lives. One more than ours. Memories flooded my mind. There was the thing invading my spacesuit, crawling in through sub-atomic gaps in the fabric, and then my being. A room filled with bodies that looked nothing like my own. Maps of galaxies so distant, our telescopes had yet to spot them. Recordings from another time blasted on invisible speakers. I never considered stopping. Not for a moment. I had to know. What I found lived in me for a time, but now it was leaving. Leaving to find the rest of my kind.
I was humanity’s ninth life.
What happens after nine?