The artists of Lascaux used manganese ores and charcoal to mix their black pigments. Those of the Renaissance used manganese oxide to enrich the brown in their umbers. Manganese blue went extinct in the twentieth century. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries had a lot of artists, most of them bad but all of them wanting the very finest paints. By the time humanity planted its first colonies in deep space, all the best natural pigments had been depleted from the surface of the Earth.
Bumwart was an outer-belt asteroid so far distant from the Earth that when Sam Evensong bumped down on it he'd been traveling for three months. An extreme-long-distance assay commissioned by Summergarden Specialty Ores had indicated that Bumwart was rich in manganese and iron oxides. Sam had been sent because he didn't mind being alone. He spent the three months doodling on his electronic artpad. It was all he really cared for.
The assay was right. Sam spent another month digging out the finest natural pigments he'd ever had the pleasure to handle. When the ship's cargo pod was full, he strapped himself into the pilot's seat and switched on the Keely engine.
With a flash, the Eiseley tube blew.
The engine died.
All the life-support systems were on backup, so they were okay. Sam had a year's supply of food and oxygen, so he was okay. But the ship wasn't going anywhere without a new Eiseley tube, and of course it didn't carry a spare. So Sam called back to home base. They promised to send a rescue drone right away. "Just hang in for three months," Summergarden's comptroller said, "and you'll be fine."
"No problem." Sam picked up his artpad. It wouldn't turn on. It had been recharging when the tube exploded. The power surge had burnt it out.
"Well, what the heck am I going to do now?" he asked himself. He glanced out a side porthole at the asteroid's surface. Smooth and inviting, like a sheet of paper. He thought of all the pigments in the cargo pod.
Three months later, when the rescue drone arrived with the new Eiseley tube, the cargo pod was almost empty, and the entire asteroid was covered with enormous drawings. Bison! Horses! Spacecraft! Whales!
Sam returned to Earth, where he was fired without severance pay.
A hundred years later, Bumwart (by then, renamed Evensong) was declared a Solar System Cultural Treasure.
A thousand years later, over the strong objections of the local populace, it was moved into orbit over Planet-of-Peace, the capital of the Milky Way Confederation of Worlds, where it could be properly appreciated.
Today it is the sole surviving artifact of that intriguing race once known as Humanity.
Sam got a job as a janitor. It was easy work, and gave him plenty of time to sketch at night. He was happy.
© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.