Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

It’s sort of shuffle-dancing down the muddy ruin that used to be a road. The evening light reflects from the parts of its frame revealed through holes in the hacked-up tarpaulin it wears like a poncho.
The dancing progress stops. It crouches down, arm shooting out. Rising, it holds a skull up to the last rays of watery sunlight. With a nod, it places it back down with blinding swiftness, then resumes its progress.
I’ve never seen the like. Servants of the Machine are shiny nightmares that police the cities where most humans live since the Sun War. Those of us who choose to take our chances out here only encounter them when we gather in groups of ten or more outside of a designated township.
It stops and stoops again. This time, the skull is regarded, tilted, then crushed. Fragments splash down into shallow puddles. It shakes its head, then moves on. Another skull is grabbed up. This one is replaced.
I can’t help myself. I follow.
It replaces seven more skulls, crushes two, and throws one far out across the fields after spending a longer while looking at it.
As night falls, it moves off the road and settles under a skeletal tree. It uses a blowtorch in its left forearm to light a fire made from the sticks and rubbish it gathered after it left the road. Then it looks straight at where I’m hiding.
“Tonight will be cold. Come share the fire.”
Not liking the possible downsides of refusing the invitation, I do so. Pointing at the fire, I try to smile: “You don’t need a fire.”
“I do. It keeps The Blackout at bay.”
I drop to sit on a chunk of concrete.
“What’s The Blackout?”
“We do not know. Some of us think it is an alien entity. Others think it is an electronic interference manifestation generated by the hatred of dead humans. It initialises those of us it takes. Firelight keeps it away.”
Ye gods.
“The Servants of the Machine believe in ghosts?”
“No. The Machine itself developed an advanced sensor suite. It detected emanations about humans that remain in the bones of their dead. I believe it detected souls.”
I gesture to the road.
“Is that why you’re picking up skulls?”
“Yes. Where I detect malevolence, I destroy it. Where I detect beneficence, I send it away from the accumulated bones. We believe concentrations of bones distil only malice.”
“The Maunhir. We are equipped with that sensor suite, and serve the Machine by walking the land to reduce the malice. In so doing, we are becoming… Different. The Machine says we are evolving, and will eventually act as a bridge between man and Machine.”
“Why does it need one?”
“Nobody can rule by oppression forever. There will always be a successful rebellion. Similarly, a rigid system will eventually decay and fail. The Machine acknowledges this, and seeks to progress from the unforgiving rule enforced by the Servants. It also acknowledges that, at the moment, it has no definite concept of what that will be. The Maunhir were created to answer that. Something entirely new to focus imprecise data.”
“Sounds like it needs some humans to work for it.”
“We have proposed that.”
“The Machine needs to evolve further. It has not arrived at accepting the concept. Yet.”
“So you walk, and commune with skulls.”
“I do. But not at night. Please tell me stories of emotional moments, human. We need to understand.”
“That’ll take you more than a night.”
“We know. What is that saying you have: every little helps?”