Congratulations @Fronzizzle for your excellent story. The entries were all really good this time around, it was hard to pick one but yours edged out the rest. Thanks again to the other authors that entered and all the forum members that voted. Contest winners can send me a PM for the next contest theme. I'll be using your suggested theme for the next contest if I get it by tomorrow afternoon, or the subsequent contest if I hear from you later than that. Oxygen [1,854 words] Brian stood near the corner of yet another abandoned house, binoculars in hand, peering at the structure a half a mile away. The wind was light, but dirt and dust whipped around, making him uncomfortable. Some got in his mouth; dehydrated, it took nearly a minute to work up enough saliva to spit it out. Out of masks, he pulled the bandana up from around his neck and covered his face. When he was a kid, this would have been considered a perfect summer day. Sunny with a temperature hovering around eighty-five, he would have spent the early part of the morning playing baseball or basketball, stop for a lunch break and then gather at the Wilson’s house to hang out in their tree house and then take a quick dip just before dinner. Now, he didn’t even know if it was summer. Felt like it, but he supposed it could technically still be spring, late May or maybe early June. It had been at least a couple of months since the last snow, but here in Michigan that didn’t mean much. It wasn’t that long ago that he still knew the day and date despite the futility. September 9th, 2012 – the day he last saw a living animal. Since then, he gradually lost track of the days, then weeks and finally months. Moving around the edge of the house, he leaned against the structure and took in his surroundings. Despite the decades-long progression, the lack of anything living – animals, plants and grass, humans – was jarring. Once-manicured lawns had been replaced by patches of dirt and dust and clay. Rotted out husks of oak and maple trees littered the broken street. Most of the houses were in such disrepair that he imagined they were abandoned long ago, though some were in good enough shape that they had probably been transformed into tombs, the corpses of their starved owners locked away inside. One house in particular caught his eye. Looking past the missing siding and collapsed porch, he could see the old white and red color scheme of the mid-sized Colonial. He grew up in a similarly styled house, though this one was larger and had more windows. He closed his eyes and thought back to when he was a young boy. Despite living in that house for nearly twenty years, he only had one vivid memory of being there. It was from January 28th, 1986 - the day all of this started, the beginning of the end for mankind. Home from school with a severe case of the flu, he managed to drag himself out of bed and crawl to the family room, plopping down on the old red La-Z-Boy couch. Wrapped in three blankets and with a bucket on his lap, he excitedly watched the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. Deeply interested in all things space, he had been looking forward to this for months. He knew everything there was to know about the astronauts – seven in total, including a school teacher – and the mission. Officially titled STS-51-L, it was to observe and analyze Halley’s Comet via the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy, also called the Halley’s Comet Experiment Deployable (HCED). That was a fancy way of saying send out a satellite, take a few pictures and gather some readings. The launch went off without a hitch. After watching the coverage, he drug himself back to bed and slept until the next morning, awakening only to use the bathroom. The flu peaked over the next couple of days but eventually he recovered, finally feeling good enough to leave the house on Saturday, the same day the Challenger returned to earth. Unfortunately, it didn’t return alone. Something not of this world came back with it, something that would lead to the end of life on this planet. Shaking himself from the reverie, he stepped back around the corner and once again raised the binoculars. His position was slightly elevated compared to the structure, giving him a good view of its layout. Perfectly square, it was made out of an odd combination of blocks, bricks and wood and looked to have some sort of courtyard in the middle. Real construction had ceased in the late nineties, but this building didn’t look to be more than a couple of years old. Focusing on the windows, he looked for movement. Five minutes passed, then ten. Nothing, of course. Other than the two raiders he disposed of sometime in the fall, he hadn’t seen another human in over a year. As far as he knew, he might be the last one left. “Okay Brian, time to approach,” he said to himself to break the silence. The silence, that’s what got to him the most. The complete lack of sound was frightening, depressing and sometimes disorientating. No birds chirping, cars driving or airplanes flying over head. No hum of machines or idle chatter of passerby’s, no wind whipping through trees or canned laugh tracks from sitcoms. The only noises he ever heard were caused by his own movement, his own footsteps, and his own voice. Dropping to one knee, he removed his backpack and unzipped the outer pouch. After packing away the binoculars, he opened an inner compartment and removed his Glock G19, making sure it was loaded in the process. Was the gun necessary? He had no desire or intention of starting a fight if someone lived in the structure. And if someone attacked him? Die at the hand of a person today or by starvation next week, what was the difference? He ejected the round from the chamber and put the gun away, strapped the backpack back on and headed toward the structure. It didn’t take him long cover the distance to the unknown building. Plotting various stealth strategies for approach, he pitched all of them, walked up to the door and knocked. No answer. He knocked again, longer and louder. Still no answer. After waiting a ten count, he used his fist to bang on the door. No response. Another ten count, then he tried the knob. The door was unlocked and opened inward easily and quietly; someone had oiled the hinges recently. Stepping inside, he gently closed the door behind him and gave his eyes time to adjust to the dark interior. This side of the house consisted of one large room, full of furniture – couches, chairs, tables, even a futon – and various books and magazines. The dirt and grime that came to define houses in this era was absent and everything was neat and tidy, another sign of habitation. But he barely noticed any of that; he was too busy staring straight ahead, through another window to the courtyard. Blinking a few times to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating, he slowly walked across the room, bumping into a table and almost falling in the process. He reached the glass and shut his eyes tight, once more not believing what he was seeing. He opened his eyes and gasped; it was still there. A garden. Big, about the size of a two car garage. Other than the small, green tomatoes on vines right in front of him, he didn’t recognize what was growing but all of it was green and lush. How was this possible? The life form – it wasn’t a bacteria or virus, he wasn’t sure if anyone had ever correctly classified it – that the Challenger brought back fed on plants. Shortly after it landed at the Kennedy Space Center, the vegetation on Merritt Island started showing signs of distress. Within a couple of months, all plant life within a half-mile radius of the landing site was dead. It didn’t take long for NASA to figure out what was happening, but it didn’t matter. Whatever came back with the shuttle was indestructible, impervious to extreme temperatures, to chemicals and antibiotics and everything else. Even worse, it seemed to grow stronger, to work faster when hit with water. That it didn’t affect humans or animals didn’t matter; with all plant life becoming extinct, other life forms would soon follow. The organism had become airborne and waterborne, had attached itself to people and their clothes. Within months, cases were reported in Europe, Asia and Africa. There was no way to stop it or even slow it down. It took awhile – almost thirty years – but the destruction was now complete. As far as he knew, a plant or tree didn’t exist anywhere in the world. Except here, in this garden. How? An answer came from behind him. “Nobody thought about the oxygen.” Brian didn’t even turn, still too stunned by the appearance of the garden. Instead, he just spoke. “What?” “Oxygen. The little buggers from space need oxygen. My guess is they were dormant in space, then came alive when they entered our atmosphere. They take oxygen from our air and from our water, that’s how they live.” Brian finally tore his eyes from the greenness of the courtyard and turned toward the voice, immediately wishing he hadn’t. What stood before him was a man in name only. Tall and incredibly skinny, his skin hung off him like a suit that was three sizes too big. Red sores covered his hairless, almost-albino skin. The couple of teeth he had left were gray and chipped, and his eyes were starting to lose their pigment, transitioning to a milky white. “When you cut the oxygen off, they go dormant again. And when they go dormant, they get all sticky and conglomerate, so much so you can actually see them. If you can see them, you can filter them out. It took me a long time – a long time – to build this place, to build an air-tight room, to gather enough nitrogen tanks to replace the air in the room, to find the right way to filter them out…there were a lot of failures along the way. A lot of failures. But in there,” he said while pointing to the courtyard, “is our first batch of crops. Finally.” Brian turned back toward the garden, placing his hands on the window. Crops. Food. Most importantly, hope. Was this a viable long-term strategy for more than a few people? Was it a case of too-little, too-late? He didn’t know or care, for the first time in years he had hope. His bottom lip started to quiver and tears welled in his eyes. Before he knew it, his chest started heaving and he broke into heavy sobs, leaning his head against the glass and audibly wailing. Compared to the normal silence, the noise was piercing. So much so that he didn’t hear the man come up behind him. “Unfortunately for you,” the stranger said, “the crops won’t be ready for a few weeks. And my family and I still need to eat, you see. And since there are no other plants or animals…well, I’m sure you understand.” Confused, Brian looked up just in time to see a reflection of an axe coming toward his neck.