CoreFires - a Science Fiction Novel

an epic science fiction novel by Colin Cantwell

an epic novel 20 years in the making

CoreFires

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Having colonized the galaxy, humanity find itself at an impasse. Are there still adventures laying in wait? Interstellar travel remains impossible and so our fate appears to be sealed.

At the center of the galaxy lies a network of deadly plasma tunnels. The shipping vessels and "gappers" who travel these tunnels do not concern themselves with the ultimate fate of humanity. Instead, each day is a matter of life or death. What lies beyond the CoreFires?

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Except from CoreFires

Barely a half mile wide, the glowing plasma-walled tunnel wound deeper into the CoreFires. “Hailing space freighter,” a rusty voice called on the comm channel, “Gap tug Aries, out of Dutchman’s, is overtaking you from behind. Captain Junker calling.”

“’Evening, Aries. The Intrepid here, from Space End. I’m Captain Holliger,” came the reply. “Appreciate the warning. No surprises at this speed, eh? We see you on rear screens now. Moving right along, aren’t you?”

Only by carefully threading the Gaps, as these interconnected tunnels of normal space were called, could Humankind’s spaceships venture into the vast plasma firestorm surrounding the galaxy’s mysterious core. One mistake, one moment within the quantum chaos of the CoreFires, and a spacecraft engine became a miniature sun.

Accelerating round a bend, the two ships balanced speed against danger as both cut the corner, close — but not too close — to the fiery blue Gap-walls where slowly roiling whirlpools of incandescent gas waited to claim the unwary. With the space tug close behind, the big supply ship was already setting up for the next curve as Junker again spoke into the comm. “No moss growing on your ship, either,” he observed with a smile. “Urgent cargo?”

“Top priority, and a bonus if we’re on time. Brings out the best in us. We’ll be much slower than you, though, in that twisty section coming up — why don’t you pass us here?”

In the slightly cockeyed pilot house of the Aries, Junker peered through windows rimmed with scrap-sculptures and stained glass. His grizzled head nodded. “Much obliged. Looks like a good spot. You’ll need all the tunnel width you can get, so I’ll pass below or above. What’s your druthers?”

“You take the high road, Aries.”

“And I’ll be in Dutchman’s afore ye,” Junker added with a chuckle.

“Commencing pass.”

- - - - -

Carefully eyeing the seething tunnel walls and the triple-engined stern of the huge freighter, Junker spun the spokes of the wheel for the next bend, then pulled the yoke back. In response the fast-mov- ing tug rose upward until the glowing blue tunnel vault was flying by close overhead.

Communication was short-range within the CoreFires. Cut off from the calls of the starry worlds, the ships threading the Gaps were on their own, with only occasional ramshackle space-villages, like Dutchman’s, as havens along the way. To the spaceship crews, their isolation was at least inconvenient, sometimes dangerous. Only those galactic misfits, the hardy Gappers, counted it a blessing. Once he had a clear view over the top of the Intrepid’s exhaust plumes, Junker inched the throttles forward, his salt-and-pepper beard curving in a broad smile at the Aries’ answering surge of power. “Atta girl,” he murmured. “Now that we can see where we’re going, let’s show them what a patched together Gap tub can do.”

While the two ships wound through a series of bends, the tug steadily overhauled the freighter, first passing over the big engines, then moving forward above the long hull housing its enormous cargo bays. Curving gracefully around the turns, the battered old Gap craft arced back and forth across the full width of the supply ship, gaining a little advantage on each bend by cutting the corners close to the CoreFires walls. “About to pass over your bridge, Intrepid,” Junker reported into the comm. “Let me know when I’m far enough ahead to get a little further from this flaming ceiling.”

“We see you. That’s some engine, Aries. Looks like you could snag our urgent cargo business in no time.”

“A scrapped freighter engine, Captain. Not to worry though — no place on board to stow cargo, urgent or otherwise. This is the ship to call, however, if you need a tow.”

“Not planning on it, thanks. You’re far enough ahead now to drop down to our level, Aries. When you arrive at Dutchman’s, tell their sparks that we’ll be coming through as close on your heels as we can, will you?”

“Will do, and much obliged for the pass. Aries clear.”

Both ships slowed as the fiery tunnel narrowed, the jaunty Gap tug now leading the way. Ahead lay a sinuous defile where the CoreFires was glowing in shades of deep ultramarine. Although the gloomy pas- sageway was wide enough for the Intrepid to proceed without the aid of a local pilot, the big ship had to navigate each bend with caution, and shortly the Aries was out of sight, leaving the freighter to grope its careful way between the tall darkly glimmering walls alone.

Soon after, when the freighter was halfway around an especially tight bend to starboard, a small heavily-armed pirate ship dropped from a fiery hollow high in the roof of the CoreFires tunnel. Descend- ing like a lamprey onto a fish, it landed quietly and undetected atop the hull of the moving freighter. Immediately grappling the metal surface with powerful magnets, the intruder disgorged a dozen men in black spacesuits.

The first of these — fitted with magnetic shoes and hand magnets to keep from sliding off the hull around the turns — scuttled crab- wise on all fours to a small hatch, paying out a safety line as he went. As soon as it was secured, the others clipped themselves to the line. Whenever the movements of the Intrepid permitted, they dashed one or two at a time to the hatch where they waited with weapons at the ready. The last to join them was their leader, who knelt beside the hatchway, tapping out an entry code.

- - - -

Two minutes later, the black ship halted a hundred yards from the freighter’s cargo bay, facing the freighter. The distorted voice on the comm channel chuckled. “Too bad,” it said. The pirate ship then wheeled, moving down the Gap ahead of the stationary freighter until it was part way around the next bend, where it spun and hovered, waiting expectantly.

The reason soon became apparent. The Intrepid’s engines fired under automatic control, and the big supply ship began to accelerate down the tunnel. Unmindful of the deadly CoreFires walls, it was proceeding faster and faster on a perfectly straight course, heading for the Gap-wall at the next bend.

Through the bridge windows the figure of its captain could be seen, still chained to the wheel, now with one arm free. As the engines thrusted, the massive freighter steadily picked up speed, moving past the swirling blue fires on each side, boring on toward the glowing whirlpools ahead. Down the gloomy passageway it accelerated, the violet exhaust plumes of its engines flaring brightly. Soon only two hundred yards remained, then a hundred, fifty.

A mocking voice called over the comm channel, “Bon voyage, Captain!”

Moments later the freighter’s prow disappeared into the Core- Fires as a powerful explosion ripped the bridge to tumbling shreds. A succession of blasts erupted along the length of the Intrepid’s hull, tearing open the cargo bays, but the engines drove on still, propelling the wreckage into the Gap-wall. Last to go was the engine room. As it became engulfed in the swirling plasma the powerful fields so care- fully captured in the triple-engines encountered the quantum chaos of the CoreFires.

Three small regions of spacetime collapsed to singularities, flooding the gloomy indigo defile with the brilliance of a hundred suns...