an extract from the novel
Herb 1: 2210
Herb looked at the viewing field and felt his stomach tighten
in horror. He had been expecting to see a neat cityscape: line
after line of silver needles linked by lacy bridges, cool silver skyscrapers
shot through with pink tinted crystal windows; artfully designed to
resemble the spread of colours on a petal. Instead he saw ... bleak
nothingness. Cold, featureless, gently undulating wasteland spreading
in all directions.
Something had gone badly wrong. Suddenly the cosy white leather and
polished yellow wood lounge of his spaceship was not the safe cocoon
he had grown used to over the past few months. Now they would be coming
to prise him from this warm, cushioned shell to cast him shivering into
the real world, all because he had made one tiny mistake.
Somehow he had made a mess of the code that should have told the Von
Neumann Machines to stop reproducing and start building.
Herb's machines had eaten up an entire planet.
But there was nothing to be gained now by crying about it.
Herb had known he was on his own when he embarked upon this project.
It was up to him to figure out what had gone wrong, and then to extract
himself from the situation.
He opened a second viewing field next to the first and called up an
image of his prototype Von Neumann Machine. A cylinder, nine centimetres
long, with eight silver legs spaced along its body giving it an insectile
appearance. Six months ago Herb had dropped out of warp right over this
planet, opened the hatch of his spaceship, and stood in solemn silence
for a moment before dropping that same machine onto the desolate, rocky
What had happened next?
Herb liked to pace when he was thinking, and he had arranged his spaceship
lounge to allow him room to do so. Two white sofas facing each other
occupied the centre of the room. A wide moat of parquet flooring filled
the space between the sofas and the surrounding furniture that lined
the walls of the room. The smell of beeswax polish and fresh coffee
filled the cabin. Herb closed his eyes as he ran through the order of
events after he had released the Von Neumann Machine - a mental dry
run to try and isolate the problem.
He imagined that first VNM turning on six of its spindly legs, lifting
them in a high stepping motion as it sought to orientate itself. The
remaining two legs would be extended forward, acting as antennae, vibrating
slightly as they read the little machine's surroundings. It would have
walked a few paces, tiny grains of sand sticking to its silver grey
limbs, then maybe changed direction and moved again, executing a random
path until it found a patch of rock of just the right composition and
then settled itself down, folding its legs around itself to bring its
Osmotic shell in contact with the surface.
His thoughts on track, Herb began to pace in a circle around one sofa,
soft ships' slippers padding on the wooden floor. He was naked except
for a pair of paper shorts. Two hairs grew from his sunken chest; whose
pallor had caused the ship's computer to steadily increase the UV content
of the lighting over the past two days, in order to stimulate vitamin
D production. Okay, what next?
In his imagination he saw that first machine, absorbing matter, converting
it, working it, and sending it around that half twisted loop that no
human mind could comprehend. Soon there would be two identical machines
standing on the rock, their legs waving in an explorative fashion. And
then four of them, then eight ...
The program was perfect, or so the simulations had told him. When they
reached the optimum number the machines should have begun constructing
his city out of their own bodies. Clambering on top of each other using
the sticky pads on the ends of their feet. Herb was proud of the design
of those pads: each seemingly smooth foot ended in a chaotic branching
of millions upon millions of tiny strands. Press one foot down and the
hairs would spread out, reaching down and around to follow the contours
of the surface beneath them so perfectly that they were attracted to
it at a molecular level.
Not that any of that mattered now. This was the point where the error
lay. The machines hadn't paused to build his city. They'd just gone
on reproducing, continued eating up the planet to make copies of themselves
until there was nothing left. He opened his eyes again to look at the
view field. Maybe he had only imagined it.
No way. Herb groaned as the view zoomed in on the cold grey shifting
sea beneath. He could make out the busy motion of thousands, millions
of VNMs walking over and under each other, struggling to climb upwards
to the surface only to be trodden on and forced down by other VNMs,
each equally determined about seeking the light. Wasn't that part of
the end program? City spires, growing upwards, seeking the light in
the manner of plants? Herb groaned again at the endless perpetual motion
beneath his ship. Everywhere he looked, everywhere the ship's senses
could reach; out to the horizon, down to the submerged layers of machines;
it was the same: frenzied pointless activity.
He paused and felt a sudden thrill of horror. That wasn't quite true.
Something was happening directly below. He could see a wave building
beneath him: a swelling in the grey, rolling surface. Thousands of pairs
of tiny silver antennae were now waving in his direction. They sensed
the ship hanging there. They sensed raw materials that could be converted
into yet more silver VNMs. Herb felt a peculiar mix of horror and betrayal.
He croaked out a command."Ship. Up one hundred metres!"
The ship smoothly gained altitude and Herb began to pace again. He
needed to think, to isolate the error; but he couldn't concentrate because
one thought kept jumping in front of all the others.
He was in serious trouble. The EA would have been upset enough by the
thought of a private city being built on an unapproved planet. Never
mind the fact that the planet was sterile and uninhabited, they would
still point out the fact that a city wasn't part of this planet's natural
"We are uniquely placed to manipulate not only our environment,
but also that of other races as yet unborn. It is our responsibility
not to abuse that privilege."
The message was as much part of Herb's childhood as the smell of damp
grass, the dull brown tedium of Cultural Appreciation lessons and the
gentle but growing certainty that whatever he wanted was his for the
asking. Everything, that is, but this. Everyone knew the EA's philosophy.
So what would the EA think when they discovered that in failing to
build his illegal city he had accidentally destroyed an entire planet
Herb didn't remember setting out a bottle of vanilla whiskey on the
carved glass slab that served as a side table. Nonetheless, he poured
a drink and felt himself relax a little. His next moves began to fall
First he had to try and destroy any evidence linking this planet with
Next he had to get away from here undetected.
Then he had to slot back into normal life as if nothing had happened.
Then, and only then, could he pause to think about what had gone wrong
with his prototype.
The first objective should be quite straightforward. The original VNM
had been designed with anonymity in mind: standard parts, modular pieces
of code taken from public libraries. The thought that someone might
accidentally stumble across his planet had always been at the back of
his mind. He gulped down some more whiskey and an idea seemed to crystallise
from the concentrated alcohol. He prodded it gently.
Of course, so far as Herb knew, no one else even knew that this planet
existed. He had jumped across space at random and set his ships senses
wide to find a suitable location. What if this planet were just to disappear?
What if he dropped a second VNM onto it- one with a warp drive and access
to a supply of exotic matter? Set it loose converting all the original
machines, and then, when that work was done, just jump them all into
the heart of a star?
Could he do it?
Getting hold of enough exotic matter to build the warp drives of the
modified VNMs would be a problem; but his father had contacts, so that
could come later. He had to get away first.
He could do that. A random series of jumps around the galaxy, eventually
returning to Earth. Enough jumps, executed quickly enough and nothing
would be able to retrace his course.
Good. Now, how about slotting back into normal life? Would anyone suspect
him? More to the point, would the EA suspect anything? Their senses
were everywhere. They said the EA could look into someone's soul and
weigh the good and evil contained therein to twenty decimal places,
and yet ... and yet ...
Herb was different. He had known it since he was a child. Sometimes
it was as if he was merely a silhouette. Like he was there in outline,
but they couldn't fill in any of the specific details.
If anyone could get away with it, it was Herb.
A gentle breeze brushed his face and he felt his spirits lift. He took
another gulp of whiskey and felt its reassuring warmth as he swallowed.
Alcohol and the flooding sense of relief made the lounge resume its
feeling of comfort and security. The plan was good. He could get away
"I can get away with it," he whispered to himself, his confidence growing.
Another drink of whiskey and that familiar sense of his own invulnerability
swung slowly back into place. Get back home, and he would be able to
examine the design of his VNM and discover what had gone wrong with
it. He drained the glass and began to stride around the room, feet padding
on the wooden floor, energy suddenly bubbling inside him.
"I'm going to get away with it!" he said out loud, punching at the
air with a fist, whiskey slopping from the glass held in his other hand.
And then, once he was home, once he had found the error in his design,
he could find himself another planet. Build his city there instead.
"I will get away with it!" he cried triumphantly.
"No you won't."
The glass slipped from Herb's fingers. He spun around and fell into
a crouch position; ready to run or fight, though where he would run
to in a three room spaceship his body hadn't yet decided.
A slight, dark haired man with a wide, white, beaming smile and midnight
black skin stood on the sheepskin rug between the facing sofas. He wore
an immaculately tailored suit in dark cloth with a pearl grey pin stripe.
Snowy white cuffs peeped from the edge of his sleeves; gleaming patent
leather shoes were half hidden by the razor sharp creases of trousers.
The man raised his hat, a dark fedora with a spearmint green band, to
"Good Afternoon, Henry Jeremiah Kirkham. My name is Robert Johnston.
I work for the Environment Agency."
© Tony Ballantyne 2004.
is published by Tor
UK (July 2004; ISBN: 1405041390).
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