Attention Saint Patrick - Cover

Attention Saint Patrick

by Murray Leinster

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Legends do, of course, get somewhat distorted in the passage of time. In the future, the passage across space to other planets may cause a slight modification here and there.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

President O’Hanrahan of the planetary government of Eire listened unhappily to his official guest. He had to, because Sean O’Donohue was chairman of the Dail--of Eire on Earth--Committee on the Condition of the Planet Eire. He could cut off all support from the still-struggling colony if he chose. He was short and opinionated, he had sharp, gimlet eyes, he had bristling white hair that once had been red, and he was the grandfather of Moira O’Donohue, who’d traveled to Eire with him on a very uncomfortable spaceship. That last was a mark in his favor, but now he stood four-square upon the sagging porch of the presidential mansion of Eire, and laid down the law.

“I’ve been here three days.” he told the president sternly, while his granddaughter looked sympathetic, “and I’m of the opinion that there’s been shenanigans goin’ on to keep this fine world from becoming’ what it was meant for--a place for the people of Eire on Earth to emigrate to when there was more of them than Erin has room for. Which is now!”

“We’ve had difficulties----” began the president uneasily.

“This world should be ready!” snapped Sean O’Donohue accusingly. “It should be waitin’ for the Caseys and Bradys and Fitzpatricks and other fine Erse people to move to and thrive on while the rest of the galaxy goes to pot with its new-fangled notions. That’s the reason for this world’s very existence. What set aside Erin on Earth, where our ancestors lived an’ where their descendants are breathin’ down each other’s necks because there’s so many of them? There was no snakes there! St. Patrick drove them out. What sets this world apart from all the other livable planets men have put down their smelly spaceships on? There’s no snakes here! St. Patrick has great influence up in Heaven. He knew his fine Erse people would presently need more room than there was on Earth for them. So he’d a world set aside, and marked by the sign that no least trace of a serpent could exist on it. No creature like the one that blarneyed Mother Eve could be here! No----”

“Our trouble’s been dinies,” began the president apologetically.

But he froze. Something dark and sinuous and complacent oozed around the corner of the presidential mansion. The president of Eire sweated. He recognized the dark object. He’d believed it safely put away in pleasant confinement until the Dail Committee went away. But it wasn’t. It was Timothy, the amiable six-foot black snake who faithfully and cordially did his best to keep the presidential mansion from falling down. Without him innumerable mouse-sized holes, gnawed by mouse-sized dinies, would assuredly have brought about its collapse. The president was grateful, but he’d meant to keep Timothy out of sight. Timothy must have escaped and as a faithful snake, loyal to his duty, he’d wriggled straight back to the presidential mansion.

Like all Eire, he undoubtedly knew of the pious tradition that St. Patrick had brought the snakes to Eire, and he wasn’t one to let St. Patrick down. So he’d returned and doubtless patrolled all the diny tunnels in the sagging structure. He’d cleaned out any miniature, dinosaurlike creatures who might be planning to eat some more nails. He now prepared to nap, with a clear conscience. But if Sean O’Donohue saw him--!

Perspiration stood out on President O’Hanrahan’s forehead. The droplets joined and ran down his nose.

“It’s evident,” said the chairman of the Dail Committee, with truculence, “that we’re a pack of worthless, finagling’ and maybe even Protestant renegades from the ways an’ the traditions of your fathers! There is been shenanigans goin’ on! I’ll find ‘em!”

The president could not speak, with Timothy in full view. But then what was practically a miracle took place. A diny popped out of a hole in the turf. He looked interestedly about. He was all of three inches long, with red eyes and a blue tail, and in every proportion he was a miniature of the extinct dinosaurs of Earth. But he was an improved model. The dinies of Eire were fitted by evolution--or Satan--to plague human settlers. They ate their crops, destroyed their homes, devoured their tools, and when other comestibles turned up they’d take care of them, too.

This diny surveyed its surroundings. The presidential mansion looked promising. The diny moved toward it. But Timothy--nap plans abandoned--flung himself at the diny like the crack of a whip. The diny plunged back into its hole. Timothy hurtled after it in pursuit. He disappeared.

The president of Eire breathed. He’d neglected that matter for some minutes, it seemed. He heard a voice continuing, formidably:

“And I know ye’ll try to hide the shenanigans that’ve destroyed all the sacrifices Earth’s made to have Eire a true Erse colony, ready for Erse lads and colleens to move to and have room for their children and their grandchildren too. I know ye’ll try! But unless I do find out--not another bit of help will this colony get from Earth! No more tools! No more machinery that ye can’t have worn out! No more provisions that ye should be raisin’ for yourselves! Your cold-storage plant should be bulgin’ with food! It’s near empty! It will not be refilled! And even the ship that we pay to have stop here every three months, for mail--no ship!”

“It’s the dinies,” said the president feebly. “They’re a great trouble to us, sir. They’re our great handicap.”

“Blather and nonsense!” snapped Sean O’Donohue. “They’re no bigger than mice! Ye could’ve trapped ‘em! Ye could’ve raised cats! Don’t tell me that fancy-colored little lizards could hinder a world especially set aside by the intercession of St. Patrick for the Erse people to thrive on! The token’s plain! There’s no snakes! And with such a sign to go by, there must’ve been shenanigans goin’ on to make things go wrong! And till those shenanigans are exposed an’ stopped--there’ll be no more help from Earth for ye blaggards!”

He stamped his way into the presidential mansion. The door slammed shut. Moira, his granddaughter, regarded the president with sympathy. He looked bedraggled and crushed. He mopped his forehead. He did not raise his eyes to her. It was bad enough to be president of a planetary government that couldn’t even pay his salary, so there were patches in his breeches that Moira must have noticed. It was worse that the colony was, as a whole, entirely too much like the remaining shanty areas in Eire back on Earth. But it was tragic that it was ridiculous for any man on Eire to ask a girl from Earth to join him on so unpromising a planet.

He said numbly:

“I’ll be wishing you good morning, Moira.”

He moved away, his chin sunk on his breast. Moira watched him go. She didn’t seem happy. Then, fifty yards from the mansion, a luridly colored something leaped out of a hole. It was a diny some eight inches long, in enough of a hurry to say that something appalling was after it. It landed before the president and took off again for some far horizon. Then something sinuous and black dropped out of a tree upon it and instantly violent action took place in a patch of dust. A small cloud arose. The president watched, with morbid interest, as the sporting event took place.

Moira stared, incredulous. Then, out of the hole from which the diny had leaped, a dark round head appeared. It could have been Timothy. But he saw that this diny was disposed of. That was that. Timothy--if it was Timothy--withdrew to search further among diny tunnels about the presidential mansion.

Half an hour later the president told the solicitor general of Eire about it. He was bitter.

“And when it was over, there was Moira starin’ dazed-like from the porch, and the be-damned snake picked up the diny it’d killed and started off to dine on it in private. But I was in the way. So the snake waited, polite, with the diny in its mouth, for me to move on. But it looked exactly like he’d brought over the diny for me to admire, like a cat’ll show dead mice to a person she thinks will be interested!”

“Holy St. Patrick!” said the solicitor general, appalled. “What’ll happen now?”

“I reason,” said the president morbidly, “she’ll tell her grandfather, and he’ll collar somebody and use those gimlet eyes on him and the poor omadhoum will blurt out that on Eire here it’s known that St. Patrick brought the snakes and is the more reverenced for it. And that’ll mean there’ll be no more ships or food or tools from Earth, and it’ll be lucky if we’re evacuated before the planet’s left abandoned.”

The solicitor general’s expression became one of pure hopelessness.

“Then the jig’s up,” he said gloomily. “I’m thinkin’, Mr. President, we’d better have a cabinet meeting on it.”

“What’s the use,” demanded the president. “I won’t leave! I’ll stay here, alone though I may be. There’s nothing left in life for me anywhere, but at least, as the only human left on Eire I’ll be able to spend the rest of my years knockin’ dinies on the head for what they’ve done!” Then, suddenly, he bellowed. “Who let loose the snakes! I’ll have his heart’s blood----”

The Chancellor of the Exchequer peered around the edge of the door into the cabinet meeting room. He saw the rest of the cabinet of Eire assembled. Relieved, he entered. Something stirred in his pocket and he pulled out a reproachful snake. He said:

“Don’t be indignant, now! You were walkin’ on the public street. If Sean O’Donohue had seen you----” He added to the other members of the cabinet: “The other two members of the Dail Committee seem to be good, honest, drinkin’ men. One of them now--the shipbuilder I think it was--wanted a change of scenery from lookin’ at the bottom of a glass. I took him for a walk. I showed him a bunch of dinies playin’ leapfrog tryin’ to get one of their number up to a rain spout so he could bite off pieces and drop ‘em down to the rest. They were all colors and it was quite somethin’ to look at. The committeeman--good man that he is!--staggered a bit and looked again and said grave that whatever of evil might be said of Eire, nobody could deny that its whisky had imagination!”

He looked about the cabinet room. There was a hole in the baseboard underneath the sculptured coat of arms of the colony world. He put the snake down on the floor beside the hole. With an air of offended dignity, the snake slithered into the dark opening.

“Now--what’s the meeting for?” he demanded. “I’ll tell you immediate that if money’s required it’s impractical.”

President O’Hanrahan said morbidly:

“‘Twas called, it seems, to put the curse o’ Cromwell on whoever let the black snakes loose. But they’d been cooped up, and they knew they were not keepin’ the dinies down, and they got worried over the work they were neglectin’. So they took turns diggin’, like prisoners in a penitentiary, and presently they broke out and like the faithful creatures they are they set anxious to work on their backlog of diny-catchin’. Which they’re doin’. They’ve ruined us entirely, but they meant well.”

The minister of Information asked apprehensively: “What will O’Donohue do when he finds out they’re here?”

“He’s not found out--yet,” said the president without elation. “Moira didn’t tell him. She’s an angel! But he’s bound to learn. And then if he doesn’t detonate with the rage in him, he’ll see to it that all of us are murdered--slowly, for treason to the Erse and blasphemy directed at St. Patrick.” Then the president said with a sort of yearning pride: “D’ye know what Moira offered to do? She said she’d taken biology at college, and she’d try to solve the problem of the dinies. The darlin’!”

“Bein’ gathered together,” observed the chief justice, “we might as well try again to think of somethin’ plausible.”

“We need a good shenanigan,” agreed the president unhappily. “But what could it be? Has anybody the trace of an idea?”

The cabinet went into session. The trouble was, of course, that the Erse colony on Eire was a bust. The first colonists built houses, broke ground, planted crops--and encountered dinies. Large ones, fifty and sixty feet long, with growing families. They had thick bodies with unlikely bony excrescences, they had long necks which ended in very improbable small heads, and they had long tapering tails which would knock over a man or a fence post or the corner of a house, impartially, if they happened to swing that way. They were not bright.

That they ate the growing crops might be expected, though cursed. But they ate wire fences. The colonists at first waited for them to die of indigestion. But they digested the fences. Then between bales of more normal foodstuffs they browsed on the corrugated-iron roofs of houses. Again the colonists vengefully expected dyspepsia. They digested the roofs, too. Presently the lumbering creatures nibbled at axes--the heads, not the handles. They went on to the plows. When they gathered sluggishly about a ground-car and began to lunch on it, the colonists did not believe. But it was true.

The dinies’ teeth weren’t mere calcium phosphate, like other beasts. An amateur chemist found out that they were an organically deposited boron carbide, which is harder than any other substance but crystallized carbon--diamond. In fact, diny teeth, being organic, seemed to be an especially hard form of boron carbide. Dinies could chew iron. They could masticate steel. They could grind up and swallow anything but tool-steel reinforced with diamond chips. The same amateur chemist worked it out that the surface soil of the planet Eire was deficient in iron and ferrous compounds. The dinies needed iron. They got it.

The big dinies were routed by burning torches in the hands of angry colonists. When scorched often enough, their feeble brains gathered the idea that they were unwelcome. They went lumbering away.

They were replaced by lesser dinies, approximately the size of kangaroos. They also ate crops. They also hungered for iron. To them steel cables were the equivalent of celery, and they ate iron pipe as if it were spaghetti. The industrial installations of the colony were their special targets. The colonists unlimbered guns. They shot the dinies. Ultimately they seemed to thin out. But once a month was shoot-a-diny day on Eire, and the populace turned out to clear the environs of their city of Tara.

Then came the little dinies. Some were as small as two inches in length. Some were larger. All were cute. Colonists’ children wanted to make pets of them until it was discovered that miniature they might be, but harmless they were not. Tiny diny-teeth, smaller than the heads of pins, were still authentic boron carbide. Dinies kept as pets cheerily gnawed away wood and got at the nails of which their boxes were made. They ate the nails.

Then, being free, they extended their activities. They and their friends tunneled busily through the colonists’ houses. They ate nails. They ate screws. They ate bolts, nuts, the nails out of shoes, pocket knives and pants buttons, zippers, wire staples and the tacks out of upholstery. Gnawing even threads and filings of metal away, they made visible gaps in the frames and moving parts of farm tractors.

Moreover, it appeared that their numbers previously had been held down by the paucity of ferrous compounds in their regular diet. The lack led to a low birth rate. Now, supplied with great quantities of iron by their unremitting industry, they were moved to prodigies of multiplication.

The chairman of the Dail Committee on the Condition of the Planet Eire had spoken of them scornfully as equal to mice. They were much worse. The planetary government needed at least a pied piper or two, but it tried other measures. It imported cats. Descendants of the felines of Earth still survived, but one had only to look at their frustrated, neurotic expressions to know that they were failures. The government set traps. The dinies ate their springs and metal parts. It offered bounties for dead dinies. But the supply of dinies was inexhaustible, and the supply of money was not. It had to be stopped.

Then upon the spaceport of Eire a certain Captain Patrick Brannicut, of Boston, Earth, descended. It was his second visit to Eire. On the first he’d learned of the trouble. On his second he brought what still seemed the most probable solution. He landed eighteen hundred adult black snakes, two thousand teen-agers of the same species, and two crates of soft-shelled eggs he guaranteed to hatch into fauna of the same kind. He took away all the cash on the planet. The government was desperate.

But the snakes chased dinies with enthusiasm. They pounced upon dinies while the public watched. They lay in wait for dinies, they publicly digested dinies, and they went pouring down into any small hole in the ground from which a diny had appeared or into which one vanished. They were superior to traps. They did not have to be set or emptied. They did not need bait. They were self-maintaining and even self-reproducing--except that snakes when overfed tend to be less romantic than when hungry. In ten years a story began--encouraged by the Ministry of Information--to the effect that St. Patrick had brought the snakes to Eire, and it was certain that if they didn’t wipe out the dinies, they assuredly kept the dinies from wiping out the colony. And the one hope of making Eire into a splendid new center of Erse culture and tradition--including a reverence for St. Patrick--lay in the belief that some day the snakes would gain a permanent upper hand.

Out near the spaceport there was an imported monument to St. Patrick. It showed him pointing somewhere with his bishop’s staff, while looking down at a group of snakes near his feet. The sculptor intended to portray St. Patrick telling the snakes to get the hell out of Eire. But on Eire it was sentimentally regarded as St. Patrick telling the snakes to go increase and multiply.

But nobody dared tell that to Sean O’Donohue! It was past history, in a way, but also it was present fact. On the day of the emergency cabinet meeting it was appalling fact. Without snakes the planet Eire could not continue to be inhabited, because of the little dinies. But the Republic of Eire on Earth would indignantly disown any colony that had snakes in it. And the colony wasn’t ready yet to be self-supporting. The cabinet discussed the matter gloomily. They were too dispirited to do more. But Moira--the darlin’--did research.

It was strictly college-freshman-biology-lab research. It didn’t promise much, even to her. But it gave her an excuse to talk anxiously and hopefully to the president when he took the Dail Committee to McGillicuddy Island to look at the big dinies there, while the populace tried to get the snakes out of sight again.

Most of the island lay two miles off the continent named for County Kerry back on Earth. At one point a promontory lessened the distance greatly, and at one time there’d been a causeway there. It had been built with great pains, and with pains destroyed.

The president explained as the boat bearing the committee neared the island.

“The big dinies,” he said sadly, “trampled the fences and houses and ate up the roofs and tractors. It could not be borne. They could be driven away with torches, but they came back. They could be killed, but the people could only dispose of so many tons of carcasses. Remember, the big males run sixty feet long, and the most girlish females run forty. You wouldn’t believe the new-hatched babies! They were a great trial, in the early days!”


Sean O’Donohue snorted. He bristled. He and the other two of the committee had been dragged away from the city of Tara. He suspected shenanigans going on behind his back. They did. His associates looked bleary-eyed. They’d been treated cordially, and they were not impassioned leaders of the Erse people, like the O’Donohue. One of them was a ship builder and the other a manufacturer of precision machinery, elected to the Dail for no special reason. They’d come on this junket partly to get away from their troubles and their wives. The shortage of high-precision tools was a trouble to both of them, but they were forgetting it fully.

“So the causeway was built,” explained President O’Hanrahan. “We drove the big beasts over, and rounded up all we could find--drivin’ them with torches--and then we broke down the causeway. So there they are on McGillicuddy Island. They don’t swim.”

The boat touched ground--a rocky, uninviting shore. The solicitor general and the Chancellor of the Exchequer hopped ashore. They assisted the committee members to land. They moved on. The president started to follow but Moira said anxiously:

“Wait a bit. I’ve something to tell you. I ... said I’d experiment with the dinies. I did. I learned something.”

“Did you now?” asked the president. His tone was at once admiration and despair. “It’s a darlin’ you are, Moira, but----”

“I ... wondered how they knew where iron was,” said Moira hopefully, “and I found out. They smell it.”

“Ah, they do, do they!” said the president with tender reverence. “But I have to tell you, Moira, that----”

“And I proved it!” said Moira, searching his face with her eyes. “If you change a stimulus and a specimen reacts, then its reaction is to the change. So I made the metal smell stronger.”

President O’Hanrahan blinked at her.

“I ... heated it,” said Moira. “You know how hot metal smells. I heated a steel hairpin and the dinies came out of holes in the wall, right away! The smell drew them. It was astonishing!”

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