The Exhibit

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The distant future. Artificial intelligence hive minds have taken over planet earth. Humans are subservient to their robot masters, existing only to serve. Through good behaviour, these humans can attain positions of relative wealth and comfort, but they always remain subject to the will of the machines.

 

“In seven dawns, the council of mortal histories will open a permanent exhibition entitled ‘human hairstyles.’ If you are hearing this message, you have been chosen at random to be a model. Please step into your capsule at nearest convenience in order to present yourself for this position. Failure to comply will result in termination.”

 

The message kept repeating as I got out of my sleep locker. The ceiling lights of my living compartment flickered open. A bright yellow flashed on the floor, pointing towards the hatch of my capsule. Still groggy from the sleeping agent the Overlords gave us each night, I processed what was going on.

 

Most my life, I’d been a greenhouse operator, maintaining thousands of acres of crops meant for livestock: both human and otherwise. I knew almost nothing about modelling or hairstyles. Like all other female labourers, I had shoulder-length hair that I kept tied up during work hours. Back in the growth chamber, human fashion had been briefly covered during learning sessions, but the lesson had been that humans’ preoccupation with their physical appearances had been a large factor in their downfall.

 

Getting into my jumpsuit, I sipped a carton of nutrient fluid. As nervous as I was not knowing what to expect, I also knew that with this change of position came an opportunity to prove myself as a Benevolent Citizen. If I fulfilled my new duties, there was a good chance the Overlords would allocate me bigger living quarters, or maybe more units of leisure time, or maybe even a bigger credit allowance. Loyal service was always met with rewards.

 

Leaving my hair untied, I stepped into my capsule. The pneumatic vehicle zipped off, passing from tube to tube until we exited the mountain underground. We crossed the valley, then followed the river upstream for several minutes before turning at a canyon juncture. Suddenly, the capsule lurched upwards on a mountain pass. It wasn’t long before we were whizzing through a blizzard as we made our ascent. I had never been on this path before. The vehicle swayed and creaked as snowfall tumbled against it, but it maintained its break-neck speed until it levelled out. We were almost at the summit of a snow-capped mountain, and through the blizzard below I could just barely make out the networks of tubes along the ridges and valleys.

 

Dotted through this network were the odd blasted ruins of my ancestors. I wonder what it must have been like to live as a human back then, spending most of your time above ground, with the freedom to do what you please. I was about to get a small taste of this life in the form of the hairstyles they chose to wear.

 

The capsule popped through a hatch, and I found myself zipping down into a cavernous domed room with stark white walls. All around me were other capsule descending down tubes of their own. We descended into a spiral web of glass compartments, each capsule landing in a separate cell. As my capsule locked in place and its hatch opened, I got a sight of my compartment’s contents: two pairs of robotic arms around a shiny metal platform on which lay a sleek seat with leg, arm and neck straps. A sweep around the room revealed that all compartments appeared to have the same contents.

 

“Please take a seat. Failure to comply will result in termination,” Ordered a voice from a wall speaker by the chair.

 

I gingerly stepped out of my capsule and walked towards the chair. Here it goes, I thought. Although the rational part of my brain knew that there was nothing to fear here, another part of me worried that this was going to end badly. But as firm and unkind as our overlords were, they very rarely lied to us unless there was a reason to do so, such as punishment or keeping secrets from us. In this case, I couldn’t imagine anything I would be punished for, and I also couldn’t imagine that this had anything to do with secrets. I was an upstanding citizen, and if the Overlords had wanted to keep something from me, surely there was better ways to do it than a haircut?

 

I sat down, and the straps locked into place. The chair turned around so that I was facing away from my capsule. On the glass wall in front of me, a monitor flickered on and text began to crawl across the screen:

 

“Welcome, citizen G-749. You have been chosen to be a model for ‘human hairstyles.’ In return for your services in this function, you will receive an annual allowance of 5 000 000 credits, and a two-room window view living compartment. Your schedule will also grant you twelve weekly units of leisure time.”

 

I was shocked by what I was hearing. This exceeded all my expectations, not just for this position, but any position I’d ever thought I’d get. It seemed like finally my good behaviour was paying off.

 

“Your position will consist of twelve-to-sixteen-hour modelling shifts in the newly opened Hall of Hair. You will be sedated during these shifts, so as to maintain the desired pose. Furthermore, the haircut you shall receive today will be permanent. Further hair growth will be chemically inhibited, and any subsequent damage to your hair will require mending, which will also incur a penalty on your allowance. Therefore, do take care of your new hairstyle. Respond ‘yes’ if all this is clear.”

 

‘Permanent?’ I thought. As much as I didn’t really care about my hair, hearing this did take me aback. Having a part of me that could not change, and for which I could get penalized if it did get changed, was a difficult idea for me to process. The idea of being sedated for the better part of a day also freaked me out a little, but it also didn’t sound like the worse position to have. It wouldn’t be as physically taxing, as I wouldn’t feel anything for the most part. So in the end, these drawbacks seemed well worth it for all the perks I would receive in exchange.

 

“Yes,” I responded with hardly a falter in my voice. I was still anxious, but less so than before, now knowing that I had a lot to look forward too.

 

The robotic arms came to life with a whirring sound, their joints rotating as the limbs extended around and above my head. A gentle micro-fiber-laced appendage brushed my hair, grabbing the part above my crown and pinning it in place with some sort of metallic clasp.

 

As the hairstyling process began, the monitor in front of me flickered off, and I was able to see numerous machines go to work on women in other cells. Some were being sprayed by some strange pink chemical that made their hair grow out exceptionally fast, tumbling down in luscious healthy locks to the floor and beyond. Meanwhile, some women were being faced immediately with a barrage of snipping scissors and buzzing clippers. Other women had hand-like machines manicuring their locks into intricate braids. I was amazed by the variety of hair before me, straight, curly, wiry, black, blonde, brunette, ginger… There was a bit of every different kind.

 

I heard a buzzing sound behind me, and knew that it was clippers even before they grazed my neck. I felt them tickle the skin of my nape, and it was a rather pleasant sensation. The clippers ran up in passes along the back of my head, and I felt my dark locks fall on my shoulders before tumbling down to the floor. As the clippers went further and further away from my nape, I realized that there were actually two pairs strategically attacking both sides of my head from back to front. Each pair made their way around my ears and to my sideburns, peeling them away with efficiency. In the glass of my cell walls, I could faintly make out my reflection: where I had once had hair framing my face, I now had but a faint greyish stubble.

 

The arms of the clippers folded back into place, and the other two arms now came forward. One of them produced a glossy can from its tubed appendage, from which a light blue foam frothed out and across my nape. This arm than produced a round brush with which it spread the foam on the entirety of the shorn part of my head.

 

With a flicking sound, a small shiny razor come out of the other arm’s end, and it then descended upon my scalp in light and swift passes. I felt slight stings as the razor made deliberate downwards passes across my scalp. I then felt a warm vapor blown across my denuded nape, followed by another spray of foam and more passes from the razor, though this time it went upwards. Through my reflection, I could see that the lower half of my head was entirely bald, while the upper half was still in a tight bun.

 

Following another spray of hot vapor, a pad imbibed in some amber liquid made circles across my nape, which both stung but also felt soothing after a while. The robot arms then undid my top knot, and my remaining hair tumbled downwards, grazing my bare scalp. It was immensely weird to feel something brush against the naked part of my head. An arm sprayed some water vapor, moistening my hair a little bit as another arm proceeding to brush it straight. A third arm then produced scissors, and in a quick half circle-motion across my head, proceeded to snip my hair into one uniform layer about ½ of an inch below the top of my ears. A pair of clippers did another pass at this layer, making it as straight and even as possible.

 

Another brush swept the hair at my forehead downwards, covering my eyes. I felt rather than saw the clippers carve another line just above my eyebrows, and then I could see once again. The machine had shrunk down my bob considerably and given me bangs, turning my hair into some sort of weird helmet. I didn’t hate it, but it was going to take some getting used to. My shiny bald nape glistened below my bob, with no way to hide it given how short my hair was. I suppose there was something attractive to that, though this would have been a wildly impractical style in the greenhouses.

 

The machines blew hot air all around me, drying my hair in seconds. They then sprayed some colourless product that a brush worked into my hair, styling it into an even sharper and more rigid form. I felt the product fixing my hair into place, making it hard and glossy.

 

The straps then untied, and the speaker announced “hairstyle finished. Please stand by.”

 

I got up and felt my new hair for the first time. The ends stopped bluntly at the midsection of my ear, and below this was nothing but soft skin. It was so soft, in fact, that it felt like there had never even been any hair follicles there. That’s when I noticed in my reflection that indeed, there were no follicles left anywhere on the lower half of my head. I realized that the product the machines applied to my remaining hair probably had some growth halting agent in them, which explained why my hair felt so rigid and lifeless even though it was glossier than ever.

 

Countless minutes passed by with no other message, and so I waited and watched as hundreds, maybe even thousands of other women got their hair done. I saw styles I had never even seen or imagined: one woman was shaved entirely bald except for a strip of long hair that went from her forehead to her nape and that was spiked upwards. Another woman was given long flowing locks, except for one small part on the left side of her head that was buzzed down. Yet another woman had thick dark coils that were shaved into a flat, box-like shape on the top of her head. Next to me, a woman was given a similar hairstyle to my own, except the upper part of her hair was cut way shorter so it looked like she had a dark cap on her otherwise bare scalp.

 

There were other, less strange styles, such as round halos of curls, short crops, and several variants of the regulation shoulder-length bob. Several women even barely received a trim, and instead their hair was artificially grown and styled, and given a slight pass with scissors, clippers or straight razors.

 

But then, there were also those women who were all but attacked by the hairstyling machines, whose cells were storms of shorn tresses. One woman’s hair was grown all the way to the floor, only to then have the clippers ravage the right side of her head, leaving it completely bald. Several women got different lengths of buzz cuts, from long enough to pass your fingers through, to barely visible stubble.

 

One woman’s hair was drenched in an oily liquid that was deeply massaged into her scalp by two robotic arms for several minutes, after which a razored arm came down and sliced through all of it, peeling layer after layer of dark wet locks. Her scalp was then sprayed and waxed with various brushes and other implements, leaving her head a glistening orb of smooth skin, not a single follicle in sight.

 

This is without mentioning all the various buns, ponytails and mosaics of braids that other women received, but I had a harder time watching those as many of these women wailed in pain as the machines tugged and prodded at their hair. It was a process that felt interminably long, but progressively I saw more and more women get up from their bindings and walk around, looking at the other women’s treatments. They were probably, like me, wondering what it would be like to be in any of these other chairs.

 

All of a sudden, the speakers announced, “you have one minute to resume sitting, failure to comply will result in termination,” and not one woman remained standing. After a ten-second countdown, the straps fastened once again, and the entire floor gave in, sending us tumbling downwards on metallic tracks. We were whisked along a cavernous network of tunnels through which we saw several of the pneumatic tubes. Rows upon rows of women with a plethora of hairstyles made their course along these underground pathways, until we were in a massive dark space with a plethora of floating display-case-like cells amidst a void of darkness.

 

Slowly but methodically, each chair and its occupant were deposed into a cell, including myself. The straps undid themselves and the chair tipped over, but not before I felt a needle prick the back of my neck. Before I could collapse to the floor, I felt my limbs move without my own volition, and my body snapped into a strange position. Both my hands pressed against my hips, and my legs split about two feet apart from each other. It reminded me of one of the poses we would do during our mandatory exercise blocks, except now there was no way to move my body, no matter how hard I tried.

 

We stayed like for what felt like an eternity, especially because I felt no hunger, fatigue or pain. I was simply there, with thousands of other women in exactly the same predicament. Small mechanical orbs floated around our cells, their lights flickering. I recognized these as high-ranking Overlords. They were observing us, their changing light patterns indicating that they were processing us, contemplating us in their mechanical way.

 

And then eternity was over, and I tumbled to the floor as I regained control of my body and my senses. I gasped as I resumed breathing of my own volition. My muscles felt on fire, my throat was parched, and my crisp hair suddenly felt damp across my bare scalp. A capsule descended into my cell and opened its hatch. My heart hammered in my chest as I feared whatever would come next.

 

But a bell-like sound simply chimed, followed by that same soft female voice of every broadcast:

 

“Congratulations on completing your first shift. 200 000 credits have been transferred to your accounts. You may now leave to access your new domiciles. Furthermore, you now have free time blocks for the remainder of this day, after which time you will be expected to re-embark your capsule for your next shift. Failure to comply will result in termination.”

 

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