A Migrant Contract

“I think we’re almost there.” said Esther “Maybe just another day or two.” Misha smiled. This was their daily game. Walk 15 miles through the wilderness of northern Canada, and speculate about their unknown destination.

“Dangerous area to walk through” said a man’s voice behind Misha, and a twig cracked underneath her foot as she turned.


Misha snapped awake. Carefully watching her pockets, as she exited the packed Loop, and followed the crowd of gray clad workers down the platform. Nobody rushing to get to work, the slow, measured steps shuffling the same, well-trod path toward the Pits. A few drones floated together overhead, almost as though they were on a smoke break, seeking idle conversation.

A push from her side shook Misha to her senses, as she realized she had stopped to look at the drones. Almost all at once a flash of light shone from the badges of the uniforms, and the red and white of C60 flashed to the blue and yellow of Concession 31.

“Another hostile takeover…” muttered someone from behind her, a tall black woman. “None of these Kleptos can hold onto anything…”

Misha panicked a little. What would this mean for her contact? — now that C31 was in charge of this Pit… She had heard about these takeovers, when one mining or oil company seized the assets of another, but she’d never actually seen it happen.

“Sorry — what does this mean?” Misha, concern noticeable in her voice, asked the woman behind her.

The woman gave Misha a long look, then sighed. “A whole heap of nothing.” the woman said. “You must be new?” the woman gave an appraising look.

“Yes. Signed my Contract two weeks ago,” said Misha.

“Well”, continued the woman. “This happens often enough. Things flash to a different Klepto, and nothing happens. We were C42 for a whole week once, I liked the silver and gold that time.” the woman smiles, but then “We were back to C60 before anything actually changed. Don’t let it bother you.” The woman patted her shoulder once, and brushed past Misha to catch up with someone else.

The crowd neared the entrance to the Pits, and groups started branching toward different arched corridors. Misha headed toward Pit 32, with the four other members of today’s crew, and they each looked up at the entry arch. The arch scanned their eyes, keeping track of every single entry to the Pit. It chirped a digital “Have A Safe Day!” to everyone who walked underneath the arch.

Misha reached her arms into the next available set of sleeves, kept unbelievably clean given the permanent grime covering everything else. The sleeves purred mechanically, then the interlocking sections pressed comfortably around her arms, and the holo projector in her eye registered the connection to her medial nerve. She realized today was the first time she didn’t notice the sleeves going slave.

A voice shouted from the up ahead, “Hey OREO! Let’s go”. Misha hustled to join the elevator with the rest of her crew, descending to her mine.

Nobody really spoke in the lift. Just like there was no rush to get to the arches, everyone was clearing their minds for the day’s work ahead. Misha, closed her eyes, breathed slowly and cleared her head, just like she was instructed to do.

With a blast of stale, cool air, the elevator opened. Misha looked into the irregular cavern ahead, and saw the five seats, improbably small in the dim cavern. Yesterday was so claustrophobic, she nearly had a panic attack. She wasn’t looking forward to the leg cramps though. After walking all day, every day, for nearly 2 years, her legs preferred to move.

They each took a seat, facing away from one another, and carefully placed their arms in the armrests. Misha began the activation sequence, and she could feel a part of her mind go elsewhere. She closed her own eyes, and heard the gentle, metallic snik as the swarms enclosed in her sleeves woke up and began seeking promising signatures in the rock. She remembered the explanation from her trainer that the swarm intelligence wasn’t actually inside her head, it was just leveraging the raw power of the human brain to perform complex computations. But it still felt like the swarm was in her mind.

As she lay back, and let the swarm do its work, her mind wandered. OREO. What a funny name. She used to love oreos growing up. Concession 60 specialized in rare earth elements, as did most mining companies in The North. Searching deep in the crust for exploitable ores, she sat here, an operator looking for rare earth ore. OREO.

Screw those trainers — she just felt the swarm in her mind, something like excitement.. Sure enough, two seconds later her disp showed a seam of lithium ahead. She relaxed as the swarm went to work, and her mind wandered elsewhere.

Another twig cracked, then thwack… she felt the pain in the back of her head as she hit the ground. Then the sting of the slap to her face. Before she could do anything, before the guy could do anything there was a blast. The guy crumpled forward, and Misha heard two more shots as Esther took care of the other one.

“You good?” Esther asked. “Misha, are you good?”.

Misha shook her head – mechanically agreeing but then she started shaking.

“What the hell is wrong with her?” A voice to Misha’s side woke her up. She was in her chair, a mile below the surface. “Med alert. We may have another scramble.”

“I’m fine.” Misha said. “Just a nightmare”

“Nice try.” said the woman who had called the med alert, apparently the crew leader. “But your swarm responds to your mind. Stress for you – stress for them. Come back when you’re unscrambled and you’ve been cleared.”

Misha started to protest, but she knew they were right. She called back her swarm, and walked toward the lift. The smudged ‘up’ button didn’t respond until she looked at the arch, which chirped and the door slid open.

As she ascended, she closed her eyes, and her mind wandered back to her dream.

“I want to go back!” yelled Misha as Esther held her. “I can’t do this anymore.” Misha sobbed into her palms. Esther took Misha’s head in her hands, and looked into her eyes. “You can go on. You will. ” said Esther softly. “We do what we have to do to survive.”

Misha came back to herself, as the lift doors opened.

Up top, she left the sleeves to be cycled, and her disp connected to the net and directed her to a nearby private booth. As she sat there, the C31 colors flashed proudly, and were replaced by a concerned, female face. “Good morning, Misha Park. You appear to have experienced an elevated heart rate during your most recent session. What happened, may I ask?”

Misha knew the drill. Lying wouldn’t work with these sensors. “Fell asleep, had memories of the road. Bad ones.”

“I understand. I’m sorry to hear that.” The female voice sounded concerned. “As a Contracted Migrant Laborer of C31, we care about your health. But we need you operating at peak capacity. You are lucky – not everyone’s mind is suited to the mental load of navigating a mining swarm.” the therapist’s voice switched to a more commanding tone. “Please find your prescribed medication in the tray below.” Misha saw a packet of pills drop down. “As a courtesy, we added the cost directly to your account. Please medicate promptly, as your team has missed your contribution.” The head winked out, and Misha stared down at her palm.

Misha dry swallowed the pills, and went back to her arch. She resleeved, took the lift down, and was back in her chair. The whole thing took less than 60 minutes. Settling back down she let her mind go blank, and let the swarm go once more. This time, the medicine helped her stay clear headed. And – apparently many hours later – she found she had exceeded her quota when the shift chime signaled the end of the day.

“Nice work MP.” One of the crew mates gave her a smile, apparently referencing the two letters on her lapel. Misha nodded back, but didn’t smile. No time for friends. Not yet.

They made their way back up. This time, though, the people were relaxed, smiling, chatting a little – knowing that their brains could rest for the next few hours.

On the Loop back to their barracks, Misha looked up and saw a faded poster. “The Top Minds Guarantee Mining Superiority”, then a line of Migrant contract workers standing in a row, sleeves on. But no one navigated standing up. Dumb.

Misha saw another poster, of a shining city by the water. “Complete your contract and join us in Sea City!” A happy crowd ate at a restaurant, in the free, clean air. Somewhere sunny. But, more than anything, the image looked to Misha like something she hadn’t felt in years. Safe.

She closed her eyes.

Misha felt the cool earth beneath her. Esther’s voice spoke to Misha, but again, Misha couldn’t reply. “Don’t look back. Get to the coast. Sign a contract. Start over. You have to keep going. For both of us.”


Misha looked around. She wasn’t the only one that had dozed off. As she stood to exit, her tags flashed, and changed back to C60.