Nohm's been hearing about it, just like everyone else, for nearly half a galactic cycle. Right on the outskirts of Horvium-occupied territories, a binary system is engaged in an oscillating orbit inside a pocket of perfectly empty space. The hollow planet and its silver sun, while caught in motion by each other's gravity wells, revolve in an elliptical path that angles up and down, as if the pull is real. As if the absence has mass. The phenomenon has been baffling scientists of many species for lifetimes, but no explanations have been found.
Half a cycle is a long, long while, yet the system continues its movement, unrelenting. No radiation is breaking through to signal anything, not even signs of a star decaying—as there should be. Neither is anything else drawn in, no matter, no debris. An almost perfect void surrounds the two entities, no forces aside from their own pulling and pushing inside that unfaltering nothing.
Spreading zir tendrils around a cluster of asteroids, Nohm nudges zirself closer. A few light-years brings zir receptacles near enough to sense the thinning in minerals.
Nohm pauses, tasting.
As Nohm waits, observing the peculiarity, time stretches in wisps and twines. Unaware ships fly through Nohm to the planet—scientists and visitors alike—and they crackle with unexpected surcharges to their systems. The tickles are pleasant but unfortunately damaging to the vessels, so Nohm drives zir body into a carefully chosen rotation, parallel to the orbiting system. Ze is out of the way now, yet still able to catch onto communications, unwilling to miss the possibility of the mystery being resolved.
As curious as Nohm, the metaldwellers move their instruments about—poking, probing the weirdness—and Nohm learns of their cultures while watching over their lifespans. Throughout zir existence, Nohm had witnessed civilizations come and go, species arise and disappear, planets turn to dust. They had all been mere smudges on the canvas of Nohm's awareness, and yet so delightful to be known. So saddening to have gone. Nohm commits all to memory, these species in particular, their cycles so short between spawn and decay. They live off one of the few aeriforms corrosive to Nohm, one that deteriorates biological matter, both a fuel and a poison. Nohm continues to be fascinated by the creatures that had evolved to consume it, this oxygen.
Aegidum—the hollow planet itself—is wrapped in a thick layer of it, a gaseous mass held in place by the planet's rotation alone. More than that, as Nohm picks up from intercepted communications, it seems that the bodies of the Aegides never degrade, although they breathe the same air. The whole thing feels like a riddle wrapped in an enigma and it pulls at Nohm, demands itself solved. It's baffling, when Nohm thinks of it. No heavy core to help keep the atmosphere in place also means, according to the laws of possibility, that the planet shouldn't even be there. Unless zir progenitors had made a mistake when teaching Nohm the basic rules of everything. Or maybe here, in this section of the explorable cosmos, the fabric of reality is merely different.
Maybe this is why the inhabitants of Aegidum are ageless. Maybe this is why Aegides is synonym with Protectors in some languages, because the universe is preserving them and not because they seem keen on sheltering Horvium refugees. Nohm would like to join the stuttering stream of travelers, to observe for zirself, but there's too much oxygen there. So ze waits, tasting from afar.
"Mayday, mayday, this is—"
Nohm turns zir attention to a small vessel spiraling into zir unseen body. Its denomination doesn't appear to be of Horvis, nor of any of the science fleets.
"Life su… down, mayd—"
One lifeform on board. Nohm performs a quick check and discovers an impossibility to repair the ship, or save its occupant, if it were to continue on its current trajectory. Actually, that's not entirely true, there is something Nohm could do, but ze is wary of going through that again. The last consciousness ze joined with almost destroyed zir value system.
"If anyone is out there," the lifeform says, voice coming from within the space Nohm occupies, "please. I don't want to die. Not yet. People," —a cough. "My people are in danger." Inhale. "Need to help them."
The ardor in the being's voice resonates through Nohm in a way nothing has in a long while, and that drives zir to consider taking action. Something akin to fondness unfurls deep within zirself at their despair. This creature, with their last reserves of energy, is determined to help their own, and Nohm yearns for that sort of belonging. Ze decides, then, to preserve them for their loyalty.
Quickly, before it can be lost forever, Nohm pushes that last breath back in. The oxygen burns, but ze endures until life is pulsing through their body once more. With practiced ease, Nohm divides a piece of zirself to leave behind, to fuel their survival, before threading a connection between them. Ze is expecting the delicate touch of thoughts to flicker softly, to grow steadily—
The contact forms instantly. Nohm startles just as ze takes a heaving breath, a myriad of sensations invading zir entire being. This requires zir full attention, so Nohm draws away from zir outer body in favor of focusing zir conscious foremind on the creature. Nohm hasn't entwined with one of this species before; it's unnerving.
They flop together ungracefully, limbs uncoordinated, before Nohm manages to take hold of the nervous system.
A flash of memory rushes through.
Family. Enemies. Help.
They were traveling to Aegidum to warn of an impending threat. Nohm licks zir lips, rubs at zir chest. With zir here, the City of Protectors doesn't need to fear anything anymore. Nohm zirself can defend the planet against most weapons of the known species.
However, another chance presents itself. Having an appropriate set of lungs means Nohm can finally descend to the surface. See it in its wonder from up close.
Zir feeding cavity opens to reveal sharp bones and Nohm runs zir fingers over them. A grin, ze tells zirself from the back of zir mind. The other, when ze asks for their name, reverberates Nohm's own back, as if their merge has been absolute. They seem content though, so Nohm shrugs zir new shoulders and pushes the ship forth with zir outer body, spread transparent through the space outside.
On the surface of the planet, Nohm watches the sky, expectant. Half a galactic cycle has passed too fast. Ze exhales a shaky breath just as a cold hand settles on the back of zir neck, supportive. Below them, the city is silent, its dwellers in a similar pose, faces turned upward.
"Mother," Hea whispers, "how much longer?" Her gaze of now is just as bright as that first time Nohm saw her among the ruins.
Not much more before they all end. Nohm bows zir head, eyes falling closed.
"We're ready," Hea says, the determination in her voice a familiar resonance across lifetimes. "Tell us the story again."
"It happened ages ago," ze recalls, zir words reverberating through the minds of the Aegides, zir children. "Our essence was floating up above when we tried to defend you against an attack. The Horvium activated a weapon that caught us just after we landed. We consumed its energy for as long as we could. When the excess spilled over the planet, we had to divide even further, to protect the you of then."
Murmurs flow through the crowd and Nohm sits on the rocky ground. Ze runs zir fingers over the frozen stone, recalling each mineral, each minute moment of feeding, and then all the effort poured into pushing the raw materials out of zir old body to create the sphere shield around zirself.
Beyond the crust, the rest of zir slumbers. Ze is waiting for that moment when time folds in on itself, to overlap once more. To restart the creation of Aegidum and their peculiar little system, revolving around emptiness. Nohm now knows what lies at the center of their orbit: the focal point of a self-generating temporal pivot. Unseen to instruments, unobserved by the eyes of living creatures, unimaginable in its magnitude. Yet, it generates gravity. It pulls at things, in that void left behind by Nohm's feeding.
There are many reasons why it formed there, a lot more suppositions Nohm could make as to how it appeared. Perhaps, indeed, something is different here. Or perhaps it's coincidence. Either way, it exists, looping around half of a galactic cycle, and Nohm isn't sure ze wants to break out of its grasp. Not even when ze has to relive this moment over and over again.
Zir musings are interrupted by a bright flash accompanying the entry of a ship into the upper atmosphere. It travels downward in a controlled trajectory despite the way the hull overheats with friction. Soon, the smoking vessel slows to a halt on the rocky edge of the hill overlooking the city.
From inside the cabin, zir own face stares back with curiosity. They still have a few seconds left and ze counts them silently as zir past self approaches.
"Aegidum burns today," ze recites the well-known words.
"No," the other Nohm rasps, voice already affected by the temporal distortion.
Next to zir Hea sits, leaning their shoulders together. Nohm smiles.
The weapon's energy discharge is finally contained around a cluster of cascading singularities drawn from the temporal convolution itself. It resembles a gleaming star against the dark vastness of space. Nearby, Nohm rotates zir stone-shielded ethereal mass with carefully chosen velocity, generating enough gravitational push to keep the destruction at bay. Enough pull to maintain the pocket of atmosphere hosting zir wards around zirself.
On the surface of zir rocky body, the pieces of zir fragmented consciousness are taking hold of the charred remains of the Aegides. Mending. Breathing again. Nohm pulls zirself out of the ashes, the remnants of the metal ship in distorted shapes pointing toward the crystalline sky.
A child cries, clutching at zir arm, and Nohm wipes the soot off her distraught face as her bright eyes widen. "Mother?"
Nohm pauses. In the back of zir mind, the other is restless. Protect. Hold. Daughter. And Nohm spares no further hesitation when accepting this proffered role.
"Yes," ze agrees and picks up the child. "We're here, Hea. You're safe now."
Ze can feel the entirety of their newborn system—the hollow planet and its silver sun—locked in motion. Out there, in a distant corner of the galaxy, the Nohm ze used to be is turning zir attention toward Aegidum, with unabated curiosity, an unaware defender.
"We are all protected."
It makes sense then, the unexplainable mystery unraveled before zir eyes. Laughter follows, and Nohm clutches at this amazing new feeling. Ze wouldn't give it up. If it came to it, ze'd find a way to bring it all back, to make sure Aegidum is born again and all its dwellers endure. Barely a moment passes, between that thought and the consequent realization. Nothing is more powerful than eternity, not even the wisdom of the progenitors, and Nohm has entrusted zir own to this life.
To Aegidum, unending.