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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK AMATEUR IN CHANCERY *** Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
AMATEUR IN CHANCERY

By GEORGE O. SMITH

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Magazine October 1961.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The creature from Venus didn't know right from
left—and life and death hung in the balance!

Paul Wallach came into my office. He looked distraught. By some trick of selection, Paul Wallach, the director of Project Tunnel, was one of the two men in the place who did not have a string of doctor's and scholar's degrees to tack behind their names. The other was I.

"Trouble, Paul?" I asked.

He nodded, saying, "The tunnel car is working."

"It should. It's been tested enough."

"Holly Carter drew the short straw."

"Er—" I started and then stopped short as the implication became clear. "She's—she's—not—?"

"Holly made it to Venus all right," he said. "Trouble is we can't get her back."

"Can't get her back?"

He nodded again. "You know, we've never really known very much about the atmosphere of Venus."

"Yes."

"Well, from what little came through just before Holly blacked out, it seems that there must be one of the cyanogens in the atmosphere in a concentration high enough to effect nervous paralysis."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning," said Paul Wallach in a flat tone, "that Holly Carter stopped breathing shortly after she cracked the airlock. And her heart stopped beating a minute or so later."

"Holly—dead?"

"Not yet, Tom," he said. "If we can get her back in the next fifteen or twenty minutes, modern medicine can bring her back."

"But there'll be brain damage!"

"Oh, there may be some temporary impairment. Nothing that retraining can't restore. The big problem is to bring her back."

"We should have built two tunnel cars."

"We should have done all sorts of things. But when the terminal rocket landed on Venus, everybody in the place was too anxious to try it out. Lord knows, I tried to proceed at a less headlong pace. But issuing orders to you people is a waste of time and paper."

I looked at him. "Doc," I asked, giving him the honorary title out of habit, "Venus is umpty-million miles from here. We haven't another tunnel car, and no rocket could make it in time to do any good. So how can we hope to rescue Holly?"

"That's the point," said Wallach. "Venus, it appears, is inhabited."

"Oh?"

"That's what got Holly caught in the first place. She landed, then saw this creature approaching. Believing that no life could exist in an atmosphere dangerous to life, she opened the airlock and discovered otherwise."

"So?"

"So now all we have to do is to devise some way of explaining to a Venusian the difference between left and right. I thought you might help."

"But I'm just a computer programmer."

"That's the point. We all figured that you have developed a form of communication to that machine of yours. The rest of the crew, as you know, have a bit of difficulty in communicating among themselves in their own jargon, let alone getting through to normal civilians. When it comes to a Venusian, they're licked."

I said, "I'll try."

Project Tunnel is the hardware phase of a program started a number of years ago when somebody took a joke seriously.

In a discussion of how the tunnel diode works, one of the scientists pointed out that if an electron could be brought to absolute rest, its position according to Heisenberg Uncertainty would be completely ambiguous. Hence it had as high a possibility of being found on Venus as it had of being found on Earth or anywhere else. Now, the tunnel diode makes use of this effect by a voltage bias across the diode junction. Between narrow limits, the voltage bias is correct to upset the ambiguity of Mr. Heisenberg, making the electron nominally found on one side of the junction more likely to be found on the other.

Nobody could deny the operability of the tunnel diode. Project Tunnel was a serious attempt to employ the tunnel effect in gross matter.

The terminal rocket mentioned by Paul Wallach carried the equipment needed to establish the voltage bias between Venus and the Earth. Once established, Project Tunnel was in a state that caused it to maroon the most wonderful girl in the world.

Since the latter statement is my own personal opinion, my pace from the office to the laboratory was almost a dead run.

The laboratory was a madhouse. People stood in little knots, arguing. Those who weren't talking were shaking their heads in violent negation.

The only one who appeared un-upset was Teresa Dwight, our psi-girl. And here I must confess an error. When I said that Paul Wallach and I were the only ones without a string of professorial degrees, I missed Teresa Dwight. I must be forgiven. Teresa had a completely bland personality, zero drive, and a completely unstartling appearance. Teresa was only fourteen. But she'd discovered that her psi-power could get her anything she really wanted. Being human, therefore, she did not want much. So forgive me for passing her by.

But now I had to notice her. As I came in, she looked up and said, "Harla wants to know why can't he just try."

Wallach went white. "Tell that Venusian thing 'NO!' as loud as you can."

Teresa concentrated, then asked, "But why?"

"Does this Harla understand the Heisenberg Effect?"

She said after a moment, "Harla says he has heard of it as a theory. But he is not quite prepared to believe that it does indeed exist as anything but an abstract physical concept."

"Tell Harla that Doctor Carter's awkward position is a direct result of our ability to reduce the tunnel effect to operate on gross matter."

"He realizes that. But now he wants to know why you didn't fire one of the lower animals as a test."

"Tell him that using animals for laboratory experiments is only possible in a police state where the anti-vivisection league can be exiled to Siberia. Mink coats and all. And let his Venusian mind make what it can of that. Now, Teresa—"

"Yes?"

"Tell Harla, very carefully, that pressing the left-hand button will flash the tunnel car back here as soon as he closes the airlock. But tell him that pushing the right-hand button will create another bias voltage—whereupon another mass of matter will cross the junction. In effect, it will rip a hole out of this laboratory near the terminal, over there, and try to make it occupy the same space as the tunnel car on Venus. None of us can predict what might happen when two masses attempt to occupy the same space. But the chances are that some of the holocaust will backfire across the gap and be as violent at this end, too."

"Harla says that he will touch nothing until he has been assured that it is safe."

"Good. Now, Tom," he said, addressing me, "how can we tell right from left?"

"Didn't you label 'em?"

"They're colored red on the right and green on the left."

"Is Harla color-blind?"

"No, but from what I gather Harla sees with a different spectrum than we do. So far as he is concerned both buttons look alike."

"You could have engraved 'em 'COME' and 'GO'."

Frank Crandall snorted. "Maybe you can deliver an 'English, Self-Taught' course through Teresa to the Venusian?"

I looked at Crandall. I didn't much care for him. It seemed that every time Holly Carter came down out of her fog of theoretical physics long enough to notice a simpleton who had to have a machine to perform routine calculations, we were joined by Frank Crandall who carted her off and away from me. If this be rank jealousy, make the most of it. I'm human.

"Crandall," I said, "even to a Hottentot I could point out that the engraved legend 'GO' contains two squiggly symbols, whereas the legend 'RETURN' contains 'many'."

Wallach stepped into the tension by saying, "So we didn't anticipate alien life. But now we've got the problem of communicating with it."

Crandall didn't appear to notice my stiff reply. He said, "Confound it, what's missing?"

"What's missing," I told him, "is some common point of reference."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that I could define left from right to any semi-intelligent human being who was aware of the environment in which we live."

"For example?"

I groped for an example and said, lamely, "Well, there's the weather rule, valid for the northern hemisphere. When the wind is blowing on your back, the left hand points to the low pressure center."

"Okay. But how about Venus? Astronomical information, I mean."

I shook my head.

"Why not?" he demanded. "If we face north, the sun rises on our right, doesn't it?"

"Yes. Even in the southern hemisphere."

"Well, then. So it doesn't make any difference which hemisphere they're in."

"You're correct. But you're also making the assumptions that Venus rotates on its axis, that the axis is aligned parallel to the Earth's and that the direction of rotation is the same."

"We know that Venus rotates!"

"We have every reason to believe so," I agreed. "But only because thermocouples measure a temperature on the darkside that is too high to support the theory that the diurnal period of Venus is equal to the year. I think the latest figures say something between a couple of weeks and a few months. Next, the axis needn't be parallel to anything. Shucks, Crandall, you know darned well that the solar system is a finely made clock with no two shafts aligned, and elliptical gears that change speed as they turn."

"Practically everything in the solar system rotates in the same direction."

I looked at him. "Would you like to take a chance that Venus agrees with that statement? You've got a fifty percent chance that you'll be right. Guess wrong and we have a metric ton of hardware trying to occupy the same space as another metric ton of matter."

"But—"

"And furthermore," I went on, "we're just lucky that Polaris happens to be a pole star right now. The poles of Mars point to nothing that bright. Even then, we can hardly expect the Venusian to have divided the circumpolar sky into the same zoo full of mythical animals as our forebears—and if we use the commonplace expression, maybe the Venusian never paused to take a long-handled dipper of water from a well. Call them stewpots and the term is still insular. Sure, there's lots of pointers, but they have to be identified. My mother always insisted that the Pleiades were—er—was the Little Dipper."

Teresa Dwight spoke up, possibly for the second or third time in her life without being spoken to first. She said, "Harla has been listening to you through me. Of astronomy he has but a rudimentary idea. He is gratified to learn from you that there is a 'sun' that provides the heat and light. This has been a theory based upon common sense; something had to do it. But the light comes and goes so slowly that it is difficult to determine which direction the sun rises from. The existence of other celestial bodies than Venus is also based on logic. If, they claim, they exist, and their planet exists, then there probably are other planets with people who cannot see them, either."

"Quoth Pliny the Elder," mumbled Paul Wallach.

I looked at him.

"Pliny was lecturing about Pythagoras' theory that the Earth is round. A heckler asked him why the people on the other side didn't fall off. Pliny replied that on the other side there were undoubtedly fools who were asking their wise men why we didn't fall off."

"It's hardly germane," I said.

"I'm sorry. Yes. And time is running out."

The laboratory door opened to admit a newcomer, Lou Graham, head of the electronics crew.

He said, "I've got it!"

The chattering noise level died out about three decibels at a time. Lou said, "When a steel magnet is etched in acid, the north pole shows selective etching!"

I shook my head. "Lou," I said, "we don't know whether Venus has a magnetic field, whether it is aligned to agree with the Earth's—nor even whether the Venusians have discovered the magnetic compass."

"Oh, that isn't the reference point," said Lou Graham. "I'm quite aware of the ambiguity. The magnetic field does have a vector, but the arrow that goes on the end is strictly from human agreement."

"So how do you tell which is the north pole?"

"By making an electromagnet! Then using Ampere's Right Hand Rule. You grasp the electromagnet in the right hand so that the fingers point along the winding in the direction of the current flow. The thumb then points to the north pole."

"Oh, fine! Isn't that just the same confounded problem? Now we've got to find out whether

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