We were on our way to Xi’an when the rods fell, leveling the metropolis.

The city of Xi’an had gone through many names. Its current name meant “Western Peace”. Unfortunately, by adopting this moniker, the city practically opened its doors to war. Once considered the root of Chinese civilization, it was now a smoking ruin, twisted under a sky clogged with acrid black haze.

I could taste the winds of death that breathed hotly over my face.

In the distance, the skyline was jagged, like the carrion-encrusted teeth of a massive monster. I imagined it devouring the lives of Xi’an’s twenty million citizens, belching smoke as it digested. A haze hung upon the city, blotting out the sun, its oily fingers clinging to the mangled, darked frames of ‘scrapers, their vacant windows staring forlornly upon us.

The boulevard upon which we walked, once a bustling maglev track, was littered with debris and dead vehicles, all blanketed in a thick layer of soot. This was a small comfort to me for the film covered windows hid the carnage I was sure lay beneath. The rods had fallen only days prior and yet the local forces had already cleared the boulevard enough to allow passage for my unit of young savant soldiers, just weeks removed from basic training.

We had yet to see any real war. My fellow recruits and I trained under the darkness of injustice that pressed heavy on our hearts, bearing down upon even the grittiest officers, each a veteran of the resistance. Some could even trace their military lineage back to the heroes of World War Three—a war that took place a hundred years ago between genetically-modified savants and the machine-enhanced humans we called mechs.

It was a war that tore the world asunder, obliterating much of North America and Europe. It was a war our ancestors had lost.

The mall food court was a hub of activity even at this late hour. The electrical humming of cold fluorescent lights could make one forget the sun had long since set. Holo-ads played across the glass ceiling silently hawking the wares of garishly colored stores which surrounded the atrium. On one side, there were top-of-the-line sex toys, the cylindrical outlines of countless male members shivering a welcome to all who were brave enough to cross the threshold of their inhibitions. And on the other, a front of a more sinister nature, where tatted rat boys hunched over too-white operating tables offering up the newest body mod trends.

Juiceheads sat at a table rippling with folds of muscle so large they barely looked human. Fashion sisters chattered in a tight knot, their frozen smiles and stretch-tight skin the result of too many trips to the laser salon. A clutterhead trolled the floor in faded institution gowns, begging for credits or junk as he wove between the tables. A pair of security guards rolled slowly back and forth on one-wheeled scooters, their lurid uniforms thinly disguising the mods that pulsed with the synthetic rhythm of black motor oil.

Mara sat at a table in the tiny café-bar, a dark brown beer grasped in her olive-skinned hands. She was wrapped in black leather pants the shade of an octogenarian’s favorite easy chair, and wore dingy white tank top under an equally loved leather vest.

Her dark eyes scanned the atrium, coming to rest on a barricaded wing of the mall, walls gripped by blackened tendrils of long-extinguished fire. Beyond the barricade metal protruded from crumbling stone, the hall swathed in darkness. An explosion. It made Mara uneasy.