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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE MUSIC MASTER OF BABYLON *** Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
The Music Master of Babylon


Illustrated by KRIGSTEIN

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction November 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

What more fitting place for the last man on
Earth to live in than a museum? Now if only
he could avoid becoming an exhibit himself!

For twenty-five years, no one came. In the seventy-sixth year of his life, Brian Van Anda was still trying not to remember a happy boyhood. To do so was irrelevant and dangerous, although every instinct of his old age tempted him to reject the present and dwell in the lost times.

He would recall stubbornly that the present year, for example, was 2096; that he had been born in 2020, seven years after the close of the Civil War, fifty years before the Final War, twenty-five years before the departure of the First Interstellar. (It had never returned, nor had the Second Interstellar. They might be still wandering, trifles of Man-made Stardust.) He would recall his place of birth, New Boston, the fine, planned city far inland from the ancient metropolis that the rising sea had reclaimed after the earthquake of 1994.

Such things, places and dates, were factual props, useful when Brian wanted to impose an external order on the vagueness of his immediate existence. He tried to make sure they became no more than that—to shut away the colors, the poignant sounds, the parks and the playgrounds of New Boston, the known faces (many of them loved), and the later years when he had briefly known a curious intoxication called fame.

It was not necessarily better or wiser to reject those memories, but it was safer, and nowadays Brian was often sufficiently tired, sufficiently conscious of his growing weakness and lonely unimportance, to crave safety as a meadow mouse often craves a burrow.

He tied his canoe to the massive window that for many years had been a port and a doorway. Lounging there with a suspended sense of time, he was hardly aware that he was listening. In a way, all the twenty-five years had been a listening. He watched Earth's patient star sink toward the rim of the forest on the Palisades. At this hour, it was sometimes possible, if the Sun-crimsoned water lay still, to cease grieving too much at the greater stillness.

There was scattered human life elsewhere, he knew—probably a great deal of it. After twenty-five years alone, that, too, often seemed almost irrelevant. At other times than mild evenings, hushed noons or mornings empty of human commotion, Brian might lapse into anger, fight the calm by yelling, resent the swift dying of his echoes. Such moods were brief. A kind of humor remained in him, not to be ruined by sorrow.

He remembered how, ten months or possibly ten years ago, he had encountered a box turtle in a forest clearing, and had shouted at it: "They went thataway!" The turtle's rigidly comic face, fixed by nature in a caricature of startled disapproval, had seemed to point up some truth or other. Brian had hunkered down on the moss and laughed uproariously—until he observed that some of the laughter was weeping.

Today had been rather good. He had killed a deer on the Palisades, and with bow and arrow, thus saving a bullet. Not that he needed to practice such economy. He might live, he supposed, another decade or so at the most. His rifles were in good condition and his hoarded ammunition would easily outlast him. So would the stock of canned and dried food stuffed away in his living quarters. But there was satisfaction in primitive effort and no compulsion to analyze the why of it.

The stored food was more important than the ammunition. A time would come soon enough when he no longer had strength for hunting. He would lose the inclination for trips to cross the river. He would yield to such laziness or timidity for days, then weeks. Some time, when it became months or years, he might find himself too feeble to risk climbing the cliff wall into the forest. He would have the good sense then, he hoped, to destroy the canoe, thus making of his weakness a necessity.

There were books. There was the Hall of Music on the next floor above the water, probably safe from its lessening encroachment. To secure fresh water, he need only keep track of the tides, for the Hudson had cleaned itself and now rolled down sweet from the lonely, uncorrupted hills. His decline could be comfortable. He had provided for it and planned it. Yet gazing now across the sleepy water, seeing a broad-winged hawk circle in freedom above the forest, Brian was aware of the old thought moving in him:

"If I could hear voices—just once, if I could hear human voices...."

The Museum of Human History, with the Hall of Music on what Brian thought of as the second floor, should also outlast his requirements. In the flooded lower floor and basement, the work of slow destruction must be going on. Here and there, the unhurried waters could find their way to steel and make rust of it, for the waterproofing of the concrete was nearly a hundred years old. But it ought to be good for another century or two.

Nowadays the ocean was mild. There were moderate tides, winds no longer destructive. For the last six years, there had been no more of the heavy storms out of the south. In the same period, Brian had noted a rise in the water level of a mere nine inches. The window-sill, his port, was six inches above high-tide mark now.

Perhaps Earth was settling into a new, amiable mood. The climate had become delightful, about like what Brian remembered from a visit to southern Virginia in his childhood.

The last earthquake had come in 2082—a large one, Brian guessed, but its center could not have been close to the rock of Manhattan. The Museum had only shivered and shrugged; it had survived much worse than that, half a dozen times since 1994. After the tremor, a tall wave had thundered in from the south. Its force, like that of others, had mostly been dissipated against the barrier of tumbled rock and steel at the southern end of the submerged island—an undersea dam, Man-made though not Man-intended—and when it reached the Museum, it did no more than smash the southern windows in the Hall of Music, which earlier waves had not been able to reach. Then it passed on up the river, enfeebled. The windows of the lower floor had all been broken long before that.

After the earthquake of '82, Brian had spent a month boarding up all the openings on the south side of the Hall of Music—after all, it was home—with lumber painfully ferried from mainland ruins. That year, he had been sixty-two years old and not moving with the ease of youth: a rough job. He had deliberately left cracks and knotholes. Sunlight sifted through in narrow beams, like the bars of dusty gold Brian could remember in a hayloft at his uncle's farm in Vermont. It was quite pleasant.

The Museum had been built in 2003. Manhattan, strangely enough, had never been bombed, although, in the Civil War, two of the type called "small fission" had fallen on the Brooklyn and Jersey sides—so Brian recalled from the jolly history books that had informed his adolescence that war was definitely a thing of the past.

By the time of the final War, in 2070, the sea, gorged on the melting ice caps, had removed Manhattan Island from history. Everything left standing above the waters south of the Museum had been knocked flat by the tornados of 2057 and 2064. A few blobs of rock still marked where Central Park and Mount Morris Park had been, but they were not significant. Where Long Island once rose, there was a troubled area of shoals and tiny islands, probably a useful barrier of protection for the receding shore of Connecticut.

Men had yielded the great city inch by inch, then foot by foot; a full mile in 2047, saying: "The flood years have passed their peak and a return to normal is expected."

Brian sometimes felt a twinge of sympathy for the Neanderthal experts who must have told each other to expect a return to normal after the Cro-Magnons stopped drifting in.

In 2057, the island of Manhattan had to be yielded altogether. New York City, half-new, half-ancient, sprawled stubborn and enormous upstream, on both sides of a river not done with its anger. But the Museum stood. Aided by sunken rubble of others of its kind, aided also by men because they still had time to love it, the Museum stood, and might for a long time yet—weather permitting.

It covered an acre of ground well north of 125th Street, rising a modest fifteen stories, its foundation secure in that layer of rock which mimics eternity. It deserved its name: here men had brought samples of everything, literally everything known in the course of humanity since prehistory. It was, within human limits, definitive. In its way, considering how much the erosion of time must always steal from scholars, it was perfect.

No one had felt anything unnatural in the refusal of the Directors of the Museum to move the collection after the Museum weathered the storm of 2057. Instead, ordinary people, more than a thousand of them, donated money so that a mighty abutment could be built around the ground floor, a new entrance designed on the north side of the second. The abutment survived the greater tornado of 2064 without damage, although, during those seven years, the sea had risen another eight feet in its old ever-new game of making monkeys out of the wise.

It was left for Brian Van Anda alone, in 2079, to see the waters slide quietly over the abutment, opening the lower regions for the use of fishes and the more secret water-dwellers who like shelter and privacy. In the '90s, Brian suspected the presence of an octopus or two in the vast vague territory which had once been parking lot, heating plant, storage space, air-raid shelter, etc. He couldn't prove it; it just seemed like a comfortable place for an octopus.

In 2070, plans were under consideration for building a new causeway to the Museum from the still expanding city in the north. In 2070, also, the final War began and ended.

When Brian Van Anda came down the river late in 2071, a refugee from certain unfamiliar types of savagery, the Museum was empty of the living. He had spent many days in exhaustive exploration of the building. He did that systematically, toiling at last up to the Directors' meeting room on the top floor. There he observed how they must have been holding a conference at the very time when a new gas was tried out over New York in the north, in a final effort to persuade the Western Federation that Man is the servant of the state and that the end justifies the means.

Too bad, Brian sometimes thought, that he would never know exactly what happened to the Asian Empire. In the little paratroop-invaded area called the Soviet of North America, from which Brian had fled in '71, the official doctrine was that the Asian Empire had won the war and that the saviors of humanity would be flying in any day to take over. Brian had doubted this out loud, and then stolen a boat and got away safely at night.

Up in the meeting room, Brian had seen how that new neurotoxin had been no respecter of persons. An easy death, though—no pain. He observed also how some things survive. The Museum, for instance, was virtually unharmed.

Brian had often recalled those months in the meeting room as a sort of island in time, like the first hour of discovering that he could play Beethoven; or like the curiously cherished, more than life-size half-hour back there in Newburg, in 2071, when he had briefly met and spoken with an incredibly old man, Abraham Brown, President of the Western Federation at the time of the Civil War. Brown, with a loved world in almost total ruin around him, had spoken pleasantly of small things—of chrysanthemums that would soon be blooming in the front yard of the house where he lived with friends, of a piano recital by Van Anda at Ithaca, in 2067, which the old man remembered with warm enthusiasm.

Yes, the Museum Directors had died easily, and now the old innocent bodies

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