From my window, I saw the crackling clouds covering the sky in every direction. Magenta and orange flashed across the sky like paint splatters. The news channel reported the clouds formed from sulfuric acid. Yet, even wrecked by Climate Catastrophe, the planet’s temperature hadn’t risen enough to make this possible.
The storm covered the entire world like a gloomy eggshell. I burritoed into my blanket.
Footsteps tapped on cheap kitchen linoleum, then on the soft carpet. My mother passed her room and stopped in front of mine. “Lelyah?”
“It’s open,” I said.
Stress lines defined my mother’s face, and her stooped shoulders aged her twenty years. Today, her hazel eyes gleamed, and I couldn’t help but hate how I inherited my father’s blue ones. We shared the same long fingers and flaxen hair, though she cropped hers and mine made a scruffy ponytail.
Pre-calculus homework rested on my desk. If she told me to finish it, I would’ve slipped into false hope that all this could blow over. But she never once glanced anywhere except my face, even after she exhaled the longest sigh in the world.
“You need this,” she said, in the thick Russian accent she’d never lost. “It will protect you.”
Resting innocently in her palms, thick glass goggles with a leather strap, not unlike the eyewear I’d seen for pilots in history museums. In the off-yellow light of my room, it came alive with glittering rainbow hues against my mother’s skin and the off-grey walls. I slipped it over my head to rest against my neck, as though I’d done this a thousand times before.
“Where’s yours?” I asked.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Whatever happens, never take them off,” she croaked.
Even before the apocalypse, my mother never wandered in the woods. How could she, with no forests to lose herself in? Concrete jungle and deserts covered the landscape, remains of humanity’s last civilization haphazardly thrown over what was once beautiful nature. Only the moon, transformed into a trash heap in the last frantic years, contained more garbage per square kilometer than my current home.
People called this concrete jungle Oakland, but there aren’t any oaks. California would be the only place to find oaks in this ruined country, but you won’t find any trees in what used to be San Francisco’s East Bay.
That’s why I picked my way through the City.
Flies swarmed through the air, black clouds thicker than the summertime fog. Without my goggles and a bandana tight over my mouth, I wouldn’t have made it a meter past them. In a few months, most would be dead after they devoured all the human flesh lying around. I looked forward to that, but for now I stuffed cotton in my ears at night.
Golden Gate Bridge -- a weird name, I always thought, with its sunset red color -- loomed out from the fog. The machines, previously ever present to slather on fresh paint, fell into the ocean yesterday. Last evening, I feasted on the sorrest pigeon I’d ever seen while I watched them collapse into the waves while. Who knew when the bridge itself would fold into the sea?
I shuffled through the carcasses, human and machine alike. The ocean wind tore through my clothing, but the bloated flies continued on. Little bastards. Metal groaned. Cables sang out of tune.
Passing a little red car, I mistakenly looked inside. Five bloated corpses stared back at me, gooey like chicken meat left to thaw too long. The windows, sealed tight, locked out the flies. Instantly, bile rose up in my throat, choking me. I turned to the left to flee, but their reflections stared back at me from a tanker’s metallic shell. The smallest of them, skin stretched over his skull, bore his beady wet brown eyes into mine, and I vomited into my bandana.
The swarm, previously oblivious to my presence, now darted over my face. Crawling over my skin and into my hair, I coughed out the last of the vomit. One skittered over my goggles, then another, until I couldn’t see past the thick of them. Their tiny nuisance bodies, now goliath obstacles, pressed around me as I blindly worked to untie the knot behind my neck.
I flung the bandana behind me. The ravenous flies left my goggles, and I sprinted through the narrow columns between the cars. I inhaled and swallowed at least five flies in my flight, but I made it to the end of the bridge, gasping for breath through one of my spare bandannas.
But I couldn’t rest. Sausalito was three miles away, and the goggles showed a clear magenta line to follow.
I walked down the middle of the road, slipping over trash and surrounded by junk piles. The magenta path took me past upturned cars and bones picked clean by scavengers. The sun hid itself behind a swath of cotton clouds, but the swirling storm of sulfuric acid peaked over the horizon. Lost limbs littered the roadside alongside faded plastics and rusted cans. Lying on top dirt and brown garbage, a pink pacifier popped out.
Sausalito rested beyond the twisting mountain roads. I climbed over the broken steel of one truck mashed into the face of another. Gasoline and oil glittered like spilled magical elixir in shallow pools. By the time I reached the bay, my sneakers dripped with foul chemicals.
The last time I visited the town, I had needed my entire hand to hold one of my mother’s fingers. My hair, tied in blue ribbons for my fifth birthday, had danced in the wind off the quaint beachside town. Ten years later, the ocean engulfed the docks. The building I remembered eating the best burger of my life in was half underwater.
I sat down on a hill to catch my breath, the dead grass scratching at my legs. Three meters down, bloated waterlogged corpses bumped against the dirt. A scruffy seagull, the first I’d seen in three months, picked at the remains of one’s face. Either the bird or a fish already claimed its eyes. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the empty sockets.
Grimmy green twinkled where the irises should’ve been. When I blinked, the lights vanished. The magenta guideline disappeared with them.
I looked up, past the floaters. The grey acid clouds advanced at least a mile on the horizon. Movement on a tidepool ahead caught my attention, three blobs of vermillion winking in and out. The magenta guideline returned whenever they flashed, cutting a path straight to them.
My knapsack contained half a liter of water and three single-serving, pre-cut carrot bags. That plastic would be the last of my contribution to Climate Catastrophe, but at least I'd get to the end of the line before the end of my life.
Wading through the shallows and bumping my shins on corpses, I came to them like a lost lamb begging lions for a scrap.
But these were no lions, for lions may roar and bite, but lions breathe and bleed. These beings, with ethereal smoke pluming out of their boney fingertips, breathed magic and bleed sunlight. They vaguely resembled the Baba Yaga from my grandmother’s stories, but I knew what they were all the same.
The closest of the three looked up from a meal of waterlogged human flesh, a beam of vermillion light casting its glow on my face. Red blood and black rot dripped down needle teeth, and its cracked paper skin stretched into a smile wider than its misshapen pinhead.
“You are not the one that called us, my dear,” it hissed. Yet its mouth didn’t move. The creature’s red tongue flopped out of its mouth, licking at the gore falling off its face. “Yet you will do, all the same.”
“But of the blood? Yes, of the blood.” A second shadow lifted its head from a half-eaten corpse, its clawed fingers tapping together with each word. “Lelyah, daughter of Aleksandra and granddaughter of Vasilisa, did your mother tell you how she summoned us and our storm?”
I shook my head. My spine shivered. Fear lodged in my throat like a stone.
“A pity.” The second one’s mouth moved, tongue lolling out and back in again. I couldn’t tell if it was the speaker or not.
"Vasilisa once asked for a gift to defend her from those that abused her.” One of the two stepped closer, its twig-thin legs shuffling silently through the water. “Your mother asked for a gift to defend nature from all those that abuse her. A generous wish, but not without its price.”
“A price even we underestimated.”
“Yet the gift was wanted, and we wanted to give it.” The closest took another tiny step forward, the vermillion of its eye tinting my vision red. “Would you like a gift? We could give you a proper life for that trinket Aleksandra gave you.”
A silver branch of an arm slithered out from the creature, and I stepped back with a cry, sloshing through the murky water. Tripping on a wandering body, I flailed and fell to the right. Bile rose in the back of my throat as I saw the third had circled around while the others distracted me. Crawling away from the three, I flopped my way out of the water and onto muddy dirt.
The Baba Yaga followed. Their every step on those chicken-thin legs deliberate, unhurried.
“For my gift, can you give me a seed to reverse the abuse humanity has done to nature?” I pleaded.
The three halted. For several minutes, they stood as motionless as statues. The wind ripped through my wet clothes, but it had no effect on the smoke leaking out of their bodies. Each of their vermillion eyes dimmed down to almost nothing, and then surged with light.
“For a price.”
“Isn’t this price enough?” I swept my hand to the bodies, rotting the sea and oozing puss on the road. “Isn’t this price enough for two gifts? What more could you want?”
One stepped closer, the stretched film of skin shivering around its face. “The goggles. You must gift the goggles.”
“To who? I’m not taking them off!”
The Baba Yaga’s mouth opened, lips stretching in a grin wide enough to see the needle teeth down to swollen gums. “To your daughter.”
“I --” Before I could retort, one stretched out its spindly arms and dropped off-pink bundles into the mud. I turned my head away, but even a glance was enough to know what they were: bags made of flayed human skin, weeping blood and puss.
“Inside are the seeds. You will sow them across the land.” Two of the Baba Yaga vanished, but the remainder blinded me with its vermillion light. “Do it well, and your daughter may not need to fix your wish.”
About the Author: Katlina Sommerberg hails from San Francisco. As a security engineer, she hacks software and machines, but finds this technical knowledge terrible for enjoying science fiction; she can't decide whether she likes science or fiction more. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in AntipodeanSF, 101 Words, and 365tomorrows.