Machine Mind – Chapter 2

Chapter 2

A scientist makes a difficult choice.

The Gladius nearly filled docking bay No. 87 on Space Station 1. The space station orbited the green and brown bulk of Prospero, a metal bead far above the clouds.

In the Gladius’ sensor bay, Garth Hobart, PhD, frowned while the muscles at the back of his neck clenched up. He wondered if the effort he’d expended wading through several months worth of bureaucrats for the privilege of bringing his equipment aboard the Gladius had been worth it. In the end the University of Danthair at Lanskey had been allowed to pay for his experimental sensor array to be installed aboard the battleship and the pressure to produce something for all that money and effort was enormous.

The experimental sensors had been functioning for a week with no fruitful readings as of yet. He wasn’t even a third of the way through his outlined testing schedule but he had frontloaded what he considered to be his most promising lines of inquiry, and yet, nothing. He sighed to himself and settled onto his chair.

The mismatched component racks and loose collections of wiring that made up his home-brew sensor equipment filled an out of the way niche on the secondary sensor deck. They had been secured in place with what, Garth felt, must surely have been an excess of zeal, by the spacemen assigned to help him. Elastic restraining cords and straps positively cocooned it, though the spacemen had been careful to leave all the switches and ports freely accessible.

Garth’s equipment and his chair, or ‘anchor point’ as the spacemen called it, protruded slightly into the walkway.

He was sitting on his ‘anchor point’ currently.  He lounged, with his sandaled feet braced wide on the deck, arms folded, head lolled back, eyes closed. The spacemen sidestepping around him occasionally raised their eyebrows at each other. They liked Garth, he was friendly and stayed out of their way, mostly.

In the center of his tangled clump of equipment a large screen flickered quickly and silently from one subtly different field of static to the next.

Midshipman Singh, three feet away on his own anchor point,  knew that Garth was not asleep, despite his closed eyes, and spoke quietly to him.

“Sir, some of the men have said that you are working on a way to intercept Joined Pair Communications. Surely this is not the case?”

Garth snorted and replied without opening his eyes or moving anything but his mouth.  “You are correct, Singh. Intercepting JP-Comms is a fool’s errand, though it would certainly have interesting implications for you folks. The entangled sub-atomic particles that make up a joined pair don’t interact physically in any way.”

Garth leaned forward suddenly, raising a finger and snapping his eyes open, “Of course, some kind of interaction is unavoidably implied by the practical effects, but currently it seems to only take place in ether-space. And, of course, the extremely slow passage of time in an ether-bubble, though useful when traveling, makes observation, as well as the possibility of any practical application…problematic. No, JP-Comms are safe from the likes of me.”

Singh nodded to himself, “Yes. I knew this.” He let the silence between them stretch out companionably as Garth settled back onto his anchor point. Singh said, “So what are you working on, sir?”

Garth smiled and opened his mouth to answer but before he could speak a soft ping rang out from somewhere within the nest of his electronics and the flickering screen stopped flickering. Garth opened one eye and tilted his head slightly to look. After a moment he sat bolt upright and looked more closely.

He put one hand on either side of the screen, as if to adjust its position slightly, and stared.  There was an indistinct triangle moving slowly across it, or rather, an arrowhead shape.  It was very unclear, more of a distortion of the background noise than a shape superimposed upon it, a drop of water over text. 

With a puzzled frown, Garth moved his hands to the keyboard and tapped out commands, ordering the computer to find and outline the shape.  The computer had some trouble visually discerning the bit of image and Garth had to fiddle with the visual detection parameters – narrowing the search field – before the graphics engine managed to lock onto it.  When it did, a yellow outline sprang into being around the original distortion as well as two additional arrow shapes, which he’d missed at first. They were identical to the first but smaller.  Garth’s eyes widened along with his grin. He stood and let out a war whoop, fists raised to the ceiling. 

Scattered around him on the sensor deck, spacemen jumped and shot looks in his direction. Garth sat down suddenly and then stood up again, muttering. “Reset, duplicate from a blank state…” He began slapping switches, shutting down his equipment.  Finally, he groped under the station and unplugged the main power coupling. He sat back up in his chair and began counting to himself.  Spaceman 1st class Andre Cordova stepped up behind Garth, raising a questioning eyebrow at Singh. Singh shrugged and made a small open hand gesture along with wide eyes.

Cordova said, “What’s up professor?” 

Garth held up his finger until he reached sixty then plugged the power coupling back in and began turning his machines back on.

Garth pushed a strand of black hair back from his face and replied gleefully to both spacemen.  “Fame, fortune, and the adulation of my peers, that is what’s up, my friends.”

Andre rolled his eyes and grinned, “Right. You turn something up on your static detector there?”

Garth chuckled, “Allow me, Andre, to delight and amaze you.”  He patted one of the many boxes in front of him and turned the screen back on.  It was showing static again.  Garth tapped some keys, calling up its previous settings and waved grandly. 

“What you are looking at, my martial friend, is an algorithmic interpretation of Penzias Static, an algorithm of my own design, thank you very much. I would tell you the algorithm but then I’d have to kill you, not really, but it’s also several thousand lines long…no matter!”

“So, what’s so special about this particular view of the static?”

“Can’t you see?” Garth tapped the screen, to his eye the water drop shapes were obvious now. “There are shapes here! This screen provides a visual representation of the static left over from the beginning of the universe. These shapes represent a pattern within that static, an organized transmission if you will.  Or perhaps a flaw in the root assumptions we’ve been using to define randomness…” He paused, frowned and said softly to himself, “That would be almost as important a concept as…if…hmmm.”  He started to gnaw lightly on his thumb then dropped his hand and shook his head.  

“Nonetheless, let me show you.”  Garth called up the detection parameters that had worked for him a minute before and outlines reappeared around the water drop shapes. They glowed in multicolored splendor on a static background.  Andre’s face froze as he leaned forward for a better look and the lines of his body in the charcoal grey uniform stiffened. Singh also, leaning over from his anchor point, frowned.

Andre’s voice was suddenly flat as he spoke, “Professor, can you bring up more definition on those shapes?”

Now it was Garth’s turn to be puzzled, “What do you mean more definition?  I hardly think there’s anything to be defined…”

Andre cut him off.  “Professor, where exactly do you have your sensor aimed, in global coordinates?”

Garth stared at him.  “What?  Why should…?” 

“Professor, the coordinates.  Where are you looking with this equipment?”  Andre’s voice brooked no argument or delay and Garth felt his hackles rise. It was very rude. Wordlessly Garth turned to the keyboard and called up a utility screen. “12° 15.5 minutes by 356° 12 minutes from the ecliptic.  Why?”

Andre didn’t answer him but turned to the Midshipman seated at the primary sensor station.  “Harper, give me a 2 degree sweep centered on 12° 15.5 minutes 356° 12 minutes, relative.” He turned back to Garth.

“Professor, can you give me a bearing and a speed on these anomalies we’re looking at?”

“Well, the equipment’s not really designed to…I suppose if we treat them like they’re physical artifacts, I can detect the relative motion…yes, I think so.” Garth swung back to the keyboard his annoyance forgotten in the face of the new problem.

Cordova’s sudden intensity unsettled him until it hit him why the man was so interested. These were ships, not some heretofore-unknown pattern in the Penzias Static. Of course they were. Garth felt fame and fortune slipping out of his grasp. He groaned inwardly. A new and extremely complicated method for detecting ships was not going to get him tenure. 

Harper called out, “Sweep negative, Spaceman. No ships in that region.” Garth shot Harper a surprised glance. “Nothing?”


“But these are definitely local. I’ve picked up relative motion across the starfield. You should be able to see them easily, assuming they’re ships of a reasonable size.” He tapped on the keyboard for a moment. The approximate bearing and speed of the shapes popped up on the screen.  “They’re well inside the Oort cloud, and on their way here.  You really can’t see them?”

Around them, sensing the change in Cordova’s attitude, the other spacemen grew quiet until you could hear the sigh of the air pumps.  Midshipman Singh picked up an intercom and began speaking tersely, reading off the global coordinates, bearing and speed of the ‘suspected contact.’

The officer of the watch appeared through the door to the bridge.  He asked tersely, “What have you got, Midshipman?” 

“Look here, sir.” Singh pointed at Garth’s monitor.  “He’s picking up multiple ships at this heading and speed.  Over here…”  He stepped over to Harper’s monitor and pointed.  “This is the same spot and we’ve got nothing.  The profile search on the screen capture from the professor’s equipment…” he stepped over to look at his own station again, “gives us a 75% match with…” he looked more closely, puzzled, “TingKlap vessels?”

“Pretty low percentage but given the input, it’s fairly strong.”  The officer, a lieutenant, rubbed his chin.  “They couldn’t be further from the rest of the fleet could they? The exercise has the main body practically across the system.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And these ships? They’re on a perfect orthogonal to the Grav-limit?  How do their positions match up with the known Federation ships in the system?”

“They don’t, sir. They are definitely undeclared.”

Garth, suddenly curious, zoomed his screen’s view of the static out.  As he did so, his detection algorithm located more and more shapes until the screen was filled with hundreds.  The officer of the watch swore, “That’s a Tar-taken invasion,” and stepped to a duty terminal. He flipped the cover off a red button and slapped it with the palm of his hand.  Klaxons blared.

Garth suddenly felt very exposed in his robe and sandals as hundreds of spacemen dropped what they were doing and sprinted to battle stations.


Things had gotten extremely hectic on the sensor deck of the Gladius. If you knew what you were doing, exactly what you were doing, and you had the right parts, it took about thirty minutes to modify a standard sensor array so it could detect the TingKlap ships like Garth’s experimental sensor had done.  Fortunately, the Gladius stocked some of the necessary parts and Garth knew what he was doing. You didn’t spend the first five years of a research career fiddling with sensor arrays without gaining a good grasp of the fundamentals.

As the ships drew slowly closer it became more and more probable that they were TingKlap, with ID percentages rising into the nineties.

Halfway through modifying the primary sensor station, the order to secure for maneuvering came over the general address system.  Garth grabbed a gleaming stanchion with both hands and pressed his feet against the rubberized deck while the spacemen at their stations reached down and activated their magnetic soles or strapped into their anchor points.  The force pressing him to the deck evaporated and the ship seemed to rotate sickeningly around him.  After a moment weight returned and he let go.  The deck under his feet was vibrating, evidence of the main engine’s operation.  The all clear sounded and he went back to work, heart rate slightly elevated for some reason.

He had just finished entering the correct filter parameters on the last monitor on the sensor deck and was stretching when Spaceman 1C Andre Cordova approached him again. 

He spoke, “Professor, we’ve got another job for you if you’re up to it. I don’t know if I ever told you, but my primary combat duty is as a torpedo pilot.  Do you think you can convert the virtual reality sensor rigs so they can detect the TingKlap ships?”

Garth spoke, “We’ve got a few of these modular extensors left, what kind of sensor array do the torpedoes themselves have?”

Andre looked pained and asked, “Could you ask a more specific question, Professor?  Most things about the torps are classified.”

Garth nodded, he was cognizant of such things, although in his world even closely held secrets didn’t last very long.  He replied, “Can your torpedo’s sensors register signals between 1500 and 3000 MegaHertz?” 

     Andre stared off into space for a moment and then answered, “Well, yes.  Normally we don’t ask them for that band but the sensors they use include that range.”

“Andre, if your torpedoes can read that band and send it back to the VR rig over the JPComm link then all we have to do is install the extensor so it can interpret the data correctly. I could use some help though, it’s been a few years since I got inside a Virtual Reality engine.  Who’s your expert on such things?”

Andre patted his own chest. “That’d be me, Prof.”

As they were walking to the torpedo bay Garth asked, “Andre, did I hear you say that you’re a torpedo pilot?”

Andre replied, “Yup.”

Garth paused, “What’s it like to crash yourself into a ship?”

The spaceman kept a straight face as he replied, “It’s a blast, sir.”

Less than an hour later Andre was instructing Garth on a more efficient way to have the VR rigs interpret the new data from the torpedo’s sensor rigs.  When the Lieutenant entered the long dimly lit torpedo bay he found Garth handing Andre tools. The spaceman lay far into the guts of the seventh VR torpedo rig, installing an extensor.

“How’s it going, Professor?”

“Very well, Lieutenant.  I’m learning new things about VR programming, some of which, I might add, look like they will be very useful when I get a chance to return to my research.  Andre is extremely knowledgeable. In fact, I think he deserves a raise.  Do I speak to you about such things?  He was a VR tech before he joined the Space Arm and frankly I think his talents are wasted here.  He could be making three times his current salary in the private sector.  You’re lucky he hasn’t walked out already.  Why…”

The Lieutenant put a stop to Garth’s gushing by raising his hand.  “Professor, let’s stick to the matter at hand. I need you to come with me and it sounds like Cordova has things covered here.”  

The Gladius was a confusing maze to those who didn’t live in her.  There were no markings to indicate location and the layout was not uniform from deck to deck.  Garth stared at the ubiquitous gray, green, and white paint and mused, “You’d think they’d put up signs or something.  I don’t even think I could find my way to my room from here.”

As they stepped into the lift, the Lieutenant punched his access code, and then their destination, into the control panel before he replied.  “It’s designed to confuse boarders.”

Garth stared at him incredulously, “Boarders?  Surely not. In space?”

The Lieutenant did not reply.

He left Garth in a conference room, paneled in what Garth assumed was faux oak, containing a mid-sized table.  It reminded Garth of the dining room in his house in Clamuth down on Prospero, which reminded him of Mariel and his two children. 

He felt a flash of guilt.  It had been hours and hours since he’d thought about them.  He glanced at his watch and more guilt welled up. It had been two days since he’d called them.  They’d be awake now.  He’d have to give them a call when he got a chance.

The Captain and four other officers entered the room.  Their faces were a grim reminder that there was an invasion fleet currently streaking toward their planet.  

Garth knew Captain Kerr’s thick bodied form and flat blonde hair by sight but would probably not have recognized him out of uniform. They had spoken only briefly, when Garth first boarded the Gladius a week before. 

Captain Kerr spoke, standing at the head of the table while the other officers found seats and began powering up the work stations associated with them.  “Ah. Professor, good to see you.  Let’s deal with you first. I’ve got a very difficult favor to ask of you.” He hesitated for the barest moment. ”It is obvious to the admiralty, and I concur, that the TingKlap have launched a full-scale planetary invasion against us. Their fleet contains a large proportion of transports and ground support units. Additionally, reports have surfaced in the last several hours of what appear to be TingKlap pathfinder squads on the surface.

“This places the Gladius in an unenviable position. The entire fleet, excluding only this ship, is in the middle of a training exercise a good distance away. 

“The camouflaging the TingKlap ships employed, which you so handily saw through, has allowed the morgtaken knuckle-draggers to reach the point where it is impossible for the fleet to arrive in time to challenge their primacy in the orbital space around Prospero and thus any invasion they cared to mount.” More quietly he said, “And even if they were here, we would still be badly outnumbered.”

His voice remained even. “We are the only ship capable of confronting them before they start to drop troops.”

Garth sat stunned. Drop troops? On Prospero? He had to get home! 

The Captain continued, his eyes drilling into Garth, “The rest of the fleet must be given the sensor capability you have given us Professor.  How long will it take you to put together idiot-proof instructions for converting a sensor array so that it can see and target the TingKlap ships?”

Garth’s thoughts strained at the bit as he dragged them back from thoughts of his family to his current situation. Instructions? Oh, to transmit to the rest of the fleet…  “Three to four hours, Captain. Not less than that.”  The other officers muttered to each other.

Captain Kerr, frowned, “Are you sure, professor?  You managed to put the fix on all our sensors and make a good start on the torpedo rigs in under four hours.  What’s the holdup?”

“Captain, the sensors on your ships and torpedoes are not designed to detect what I have them detecting.  The changes I made were seat of the pants, to put it nicely. To convey all the factors I took into account mentally… well that’s not something that can be rushed because it not only has to be complete but also clear…”

The Captain cut him off with a wave and a frown.  “I feared as much.  That brings me to the favor I have to ask of you, or rather that the people of Prospero have to ask of you. You need to leave this ship.”  He looked at Garth as if that meant something special.

Garth grinned, “Happy to do so Captain, no offense, but I was going to do that anyway. I need to get back to my family. A warship at war is no place for a scientist.” 

The Captain’s frown did not waver as he said, “Professor, I’m afraid you misunderstand.  When I said we were the only ship capable of engaging the TingKlap fleet before it began dropping troops on our home, I meant to imply that we would be engaging them. Those troops are at their most vulnerable right now.  Any drop ship we destroy now means thousands of troops that will never set foot on our planet. We will destroy as many as we can before we are ourselves destroyed.”

The other officers around the table returned Garth’s darting glances steadily. Some of them were sweating, some breathed a little quickly, most seemed to be made of wood or stone. Objections ran in screaming circles inside Garth’s head. He gritted his teeth and asked, “Captain, what do you mean by ‘leave the ship?’ What, exactly, are you asking me to do?”

“Professor, right now we’re transferring a work station and a portable JPComm unit, paired directly with the fleet’s flagship, into a shuttle. I’m asking you to climb into that shuttle, write those instructions as fast as you can, and transmit them to the rest of the fleet.”

Garth stared, “But, why don’t I just stay on the ship and do that?”

“Because, Professor, this ship will reach the TingKlap invasion fleet in just under two hours.  It will likely cease to exist before you have your three to four.  If we send you back the way we came at the maximum boost a shuttle is capable of, we’ll be able to send you into a fairly stable orbit around Prospero.  You will then have,” he glanced at his handheld, “a little more than four hours to write the instructions and transmit them before the Tinks come within effective range of your shuttle.”

That sounded ominous. “Effective range?”

“I mean the distance at which the Tinks will be able to detect the power signature of your JPComm transmission and launch missiles that can reach your shuttle. It’s a fuzzy value because we don’t know how sharp their sensor crews are, or the exact capabilities of their missiles, so you may have a few minutes more, or less, than our estimate.”

Silence reigned in the conference room.  Garth pondered the Captain’s words.  If he were quick about it he could be done sooner than the four hour limit and maybe not be detected at all.  If he was in a stable orbit then maybe somebody could come pick him up and he could get home to Mariel. The Air Arm had vessels capable of reaching orbit, didn’t they?  It was certainly better than staying aboard a ship bent on a suicide attack…

“Professor, the clock is running.”

Garth started out of his reverie and said, “So where is this shuttle?  Can I stop by my room first?” 

“Certainly, Professor. Rolf, take the professor to shuttle bay three by way of his cabin if you would.”

A Lieutenant stepped away from the wall and said, “Yes, sir.  Professor, follow me please.” 

Garth obediently followed the man out into the gray corridor. Behind him he heard the Captain bark, “Sit-rep, Engineering, go.”


The air in the shuttle seemed cool.  Garth was still sweating.  He looked at his watch. Two hours had passed since he’d been installed in the shuttle and launched on his way.  He could see the battle taking place behind him on the shuttle’s heads up display.  He’d been delayed by a good fifteen minutes getting started when he’d realized, at the last moment, that he needed to have an actual sensor array in front of him in order to make the instructions reliably coherent. 

Spaceman 1C Andre Cordova had delivered the sensor unit.  He had been wearing full vacuum armor with the helmet hinged back off its locking ring. 

“Here ya go, Professor.  You need anything else?”

“What’s with the armor?” Garth had asked.  “The other spacers just have the soft suits.”

Andre’s reply still echoed in his mind.  “Survivability.  Our control rigs have independent local power sources. So, even if the ship disintegrates around us, we can still steer a torp-cloud…assuming the rig itself survives anyway. They’re hardened too. These things,” He patted his armored chest. “are good for 72 hours.  The batteries are good for years of course but the air and water get a little bulky.”   

An uncomfortable silence grew in the cramped cabin of the shuttle until Andre rubbed his hand through his hair and said, “Well, I’ll quit botherin’ ya.” He got up to leave.

Garth, said awkwardly, “Hey, Andre.” 

“Yeah, Prof?”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah, you too, Prof. It’s pretty impressive, what you’re doing.” Andre had thrown him a sketchy salute and clanked out of the shuttle.

Now, Garth watched the Gladius close with the Tink fleet on the sensor rig.  He kept imagining Andre, armor and all, folded into his VR rig. The Gladius had deliberately not aimed itself dead center at the TingKlap formation. They were using the Tink’s own stealth against them, maintaining for as long as possible the fiction that the Gladius couldn’t see the invasion fleet. They were hoping the Tinks wouldn’t break cover by firing at them until the Gladius initiated hostilities. What the Tinks could possibly think the Gladius was doing boosting into that region of space Garth couldn’t imagine but the ruse seemed to have worked. The Gladius, and her torpedoes, were in among the Tinks now, wrapping herself and the nearest ships in a swiftly tangling web of torpedo vector tracks.

Garth threw himself back into the instructions he was trying to create.  An hour later, as he was finishing, a sound from the heads up display yanked him out of concentration.  It was just a small sound, a beep.  He looked back at the screen and saw that it was a proximity alarm.  The Tink fleet was now within torpedo range of his shuttle. 

And, he belatedly noticed, the Tinks were the only ones showing on the screen. The Gladius was gone. He had not seen her end. There were so many TingKlap ships on the screen he couldn’t even tell if they were fewer now. A large number of them were heading, as expected, past the planet toward the rest of the Prosperan fleet. A sigh fled from his lungs.

He finished the instructions and read through them one last time.  The opening paragraph, an explanation from Captain Kerr, including verification codes, was blunt and to the point.  The instructions themselves couldn’t be made any clearer.  They were also shorter than he’d expected.  It would take next to no time to transmit, including the diagrams. 

Of course, when he did transmit, no matter how short it was, the Tinkers would detect the operation of the JPComms equipment and would probably shoot a missile at him on general principle. If he forgot the whole idea and just floated up here in orbit someone might, no someone would, eventually, come to pick him up.

The temptation to just sit quiet, to not attract the wrath of a faceless Tinker behind a missile console filled Garth.  Mariel would be devastated if he died. He would be devastated if he died.  His children were so young they wouldn’t even remember him in a few years.

Memories of life with them in the house outside of Clamuth flashed before him.  He tried to imagine what they were doing as he floated far above them in the shuttle. Probably playing in the yard. It was summer down there.  

He studied the instrument panel. In order to give him the maximum time to write the instructions and transmit them, the crew of the Gladius had used up almost all of his fuel in the initial burn.  The fuel guage still read a fraction left though. Might it be enough?

Garth searched the control menus for an automated landing sequence…and found one.  His heart began to race and he ordered the computer to start the sequence. It refused; there was too little fuel. 

Garth swore and sat back in the pilot’s seat – the sensor instructions momentarily forgotten.  Maybe the Tinks would leave him alone or capture him instead of killing him if he just sat here without doing anything. Maybe the Air Arm would see him and come get him. Maybe. . .

As his mind spun through the same cycle of thought again and again he noticed movement on the sensor rig’s screen. A TingKlap torpedo was streaking back out into space, toward where the battle with the Gladius had taken place.  The Tink ships, flying in a globular formation, were maneuvering. Garth sucked in a breath and leaned over the screen. 

He watched a Space Arm torpedo-cloud appear from off-screen and close with the globe of Tink ships from the direction of the battle. It performed complicated gyrations and penetrated the Tink globe.  It seemed to be targeting one of the Tink battleships that were angling in on it.  The dots of light representing the torpedoes on the heads up all merged with the dot of light representing the Tink battleship . . . and emerged again in a spray.  The separate parts of the torpedo-cloud increased their velocity and arrowed in toward some of the slower moving Tink ships – which Garth had assumed were troop transports.  The torpedo dots merged with several transport dots, and they all disappeared.

Garth sat back in his seat and saw in his mind’s eye the TingKlap troop transports ripped open by the torpedo’s warheads, Tink bodies spilling into space or simply blasted into vapor, never to trouble his planet except as ephemeral meteors.

While he watched, the missile the Tinks had fired disappeared before it reached the edge of the screen. It too had found a mark. He knew where it had stopped. It had destroyed a torpedo pilot. That pilot, sitting dead in space, breathing canned air, encased in his VR rig, surrounded by the wreckage of his ship and the bodies of his comrades had triggered the Tink torpedo in exactly the same way Garth was supposed to, by activating his JPComms link with the last torpedo-cloud he would ever pilot. In Garth’s imagination that spaceman had Andre’s face. 

Garth climbed up out of the pilot’s seat and went back to the communications equipment Andre had brought him. He spent five minutes writing a note to Mariel and his children. He added it to the end of the instructions and included his home address as well as Mariel’s network address. 

Breath ragged, heart racing, before he could change his mind, he punched the SEND button.  He watched the machine until the transmission to the flagship was complete and reception was confirmed at the other end. He thought about striking up a conversation with the communications personnel on the other end of the link. But what would he say?

He went back to the pilot’s seat and looked at the heads up display. His heart froze in his chest. Yup. The Tinks had fired a torpedo just after he had started transmission, and it was headed straight for him. He queried the computer for its ETA. Ten minutes.

The computer refused to allow him to override and activate the automatic landing sequence.  There were safety features.  Garth glanced at the torpedo, which had covered half the distance while he fought the computer and asked the shuttle for manual control. 

It gave it to him. 

Garth, almost not believing what he was about to try, but not worried particularly about the fact that he had never flown anything more complicated than a kite, managed to aim the shuttle at Prospero and fire the engines.  They pressed him back into his seat for less than five seconds before they cut out for lack of fuel. 

A few minutes later the shuttle was just entering the outer fringes of detectable Prosperan atmosphere when the TingKlap torpedo jammed itself up the craft’s propulsion tubes and exploded, ripping the shuttle into thousands of pieces, not one of which was larger than a man’s clenched fist.