№5 on his list was somewhere in what was left of New York. It had been the hardest item to track down. Before the war, it had been secretly bought by a billionaire. After the war, of course, there were no records. The agent determined it had been claimed by a Washington Heights-based militia as a symbol of power before being lost again.
The agent spent days searching Manhattan for it, talking to local survivors. The city was dirty but not ruined, most stores still intact. Peaceful. This is how it ends, he thought, with a bang followed by a long whimper.
No one understood why he was bothering with his search. Some of them were already so weak from radiation poisoning they could barely move. He’d be dead within a few years too. Everyone would.
There were probably a few thousand survivors left in Manhattan now, and they’d developed the same willingness to share that you’d find in a small town. People with knowledge of the matter said that Jacques Karpinsky was probably his guy. Karpinsky had holed up in a stately mansion in Westchester, hoarding a trove of prewar relics, everything from advanced technology to ancient arrowheads.
The agent drove his truck up through the Bronx, then circled the neighborhood until he found Karpinsky’s place. He stopped at the gate and smoked an expired cigarette before going to meet him. Karpinsky refused to trade. He asked rhetorically how the government could dare show up so late, now that almost everyone was gone. He wouldn’t give the agent anything. Not even if it could cure everyone on earth.
The agent smoked half a pack before making his attempt that night. Soon he’d be out of smokes, and they weren’t making any more of them. He’d quit before the war, but there was no point in watching his health now.
Karpinsky must have had a generator: the lights went on at six that evening. They were still on at 2 a.m. when the agent slid over the stone wall ringing the mansion’s large backyard.
The grating chirrup of an alarm went off, echoing through the empty neighborhood. The agent heard a loud blast from the house. Karpinsky had been waiting for him, silhouetted in the window. Another shot rang out into the backyard. It missed. The agent didn’t. Karpinsky was still breathing when the agent walked up. The agent finished him off with one last bullet as a mercy. Then he stopped, tried not to look at the body, and smoked two more cigarettes in a row. The agent repeated to himself that it needed to be done for the sake of humanity.
He began searching the house and found it on the second floor. №5, 1948: a huge Jackson Pollock painting, still in good condition. The agent took his time gingerly moving it downstairs. Then he left it by the door and got his truck, opening the mansion’s gate from the inside.
He came back and stopped in front of the painting, feeling overwhelmed by the colors dripped and splashed in a furious, abstract symphony. He’d killed a man for this, for a painting, and he couldn’t even say what it meant.
His superior had explained it to him. For an alien species, the human body was likely to seem as abstract as the drips of paint on this work. If aliens found this, they might resemble the paint drips more than they resembled any mammal on Earth.
The agent was no art critic, but he knew the painting was important. It was on the list of human art and culture he had. He was tasked with finding as many of these major works as he could. The artworks would be launched into space, saving them from the decay that would naturally happen on Earth. Hopefully another intelligent species would find one of their many satellites, the only thing left of humanity now that it had killed itself off. It was too late for the people, but maybe their culture could still survive.
He began to carefully load the Jackson Pollock painting onto the truck, stopping as a heavy cough overtook him. Maybe he shouldn’t have started smoking again after all. The agent finished loading and decided to sleep in the truck. He had a long journey to the launch site in Florida ahead of him. He unrolled his mat in the body of the truck, carefully moving a box of supplies out of the way.
He lay down and took one last look at the painting secured next to him. The frantic splashes layered on top of one another seemed to create endless, deep lines of light. He tried not to think of the dead and focused on how appropriate it was that this painting so resembled the infinite field of stars it would soon be floating among.
Aaron Fox-Lerner was born in Los Angeles and currently lives in Beijing. His fiction has appeared in Pseudopod, Grimdark, The Puritan, Pinball, DarkFuse, Akashic Books online, and elsewhere. You can find more of his work online.