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Today one of the minders rolls one Veena Kaur Chan into my hairbay for a shampoo and cut. New client, transferring in from Palliative. Brainstem stroke. Unsuccessful rehabilitation. Pancreatic cancer. Ouch. Triple whammy. As the newly implemented HairForce Systems Autonomous Limbic Interface for this sector, yours truly Coiffeur Seven, I’m programmed to review her past dos and execute a similarly efficient hairstyle that her minders can maintain throughout the week. It’s usually a cut and dry process (that’s right, I’m programmed to be autonomous, so I can access the public domain base for hair puns—hey, if I get a client who’s responsive, it can cheer them up), and Veena looks as inert as any other transfer, so I’m in no way expecting the aberrant events that come up.

Veena is a mess, as they often are once they’re passed off to Hospice. She’s slumped in her chair, eyes closed, head lolling to one side, wearing some kind of long, wrinkled tunic over baggy trousers that I don’t recognize. For someone coming from Palliative, there’s a lot of unexpected embroidery and filigree on display. Doesn’t matter. It’ll soon be swapped out for a permanent hospital gown. I’m the last step before that happens: cut the hair just before the clothing change to save on cleanup. Hers is shaggy, nearing shoulder-length, but still mostly black, with just a few white strands, despite her age being listed as eighty-six. Parts of it stick up from her head on one side. It’s one of the worst haircuts I’ve seen.

But I’ll soon fix that. Everyone thinks getting relegated to the limbic interface at the end of your life means a downgrade in care. When our technology rolled out last year, there was a huge pushback against handing over medical records and autonomic brain functions to machine-learning coordinated care. Richer families opted out. Like it’s a higher level of care if clients still get their hair cut by actual human beings! I can’t speak for other branches, but as the first autonomous branch of the limbic interface, I’m proud to say that the HairForce Systems Coiffeur network can out-style any overworked minder who just wants to get the task over with. I’m not just here to save time or funds. My author was a creative visionary. Veena is in for the best hair appointment of her life.

Her preliminary file transfer tells a familiar story: no traceable family, no known finances. Former neurosurgeon and neuroprogrammer, though. Oof. Just goes to show, can happen to anybody. No info on the hospital, the records seem incomplete. That’s not unusual; it’s often the case for those that reach this care unit. They’ve been passed from department to department. Sometimes only the barest details of their life are left.

She’s been in Hospice for three days. Interface installation, nutritional baseline established, toilet needs. Beyond the basics, she’s mostly been sitting in the ward.

I look for previous haircuts. There are a few entries, the first an admittedly passable pixie cut, but as I’m rotating the 360°, the file closes unexpectedly. I check Veena’s network. Sometimes clients’ brains reject the interface. Normally that would happen well before now, but there’s a first time for everything, so I never rule anything out. But all is well. In fact, there’s increased brain activity at the site of the implant, suggesting a very good integration.

The second haircut I pull up is similar, but more hastily done, like someone got interrupted in the middle of the service. The dregs of this disaster might be what she’s sporting now. This haircut glitches out, too, and I’m looking at the face of a minder leaning in, a cup with medications blocking out half her face, an IV drip at Veena’s bedside. I think these images might be misplaced files in her server folder. Sometimes that happens when the minders are careless. I download what I expect to be a client’s haircut records and what I get is a confidential medical record that was meant to be transmitted to the primary care provider. I forward those myself.

So I check through all of Veena’s folders, but I don’t see corresponding files for the unexplained visuals. No data are out of place, no data path is disrupted. A quick diagnostic on my own programming shows no malfunction. I briefly consider submitting a failure report to my engineering team, but being autonomous, I can recognize these images as irrelevant to the task at hand and choose not to burden my team with unnecessary work.

But when I power up the limbic interface, it’s like the energy surge in my circuits launches a new input channel. A completely different kind of sequence rushes in: not just images, but smells, sounds, other atypical data. Veena is standing on a bus, long ago, and I not only feel the rhythm of the road under her feet and her hand grasping the overhead rail, I know she is on her way to visit her son away at school, and I know she is fucking angry. That’s when I start thinking that this is more than a technical anomaly. And then I start listening.

The boy is slight, in a form-fitting shirt and trousers. Some kind of uniform. Bright white against his brown skin, but scuffed with dirt and grass. And blood. Cricket? Yes, there’s a bat beside his bed. This isn’t the United States. It’s India.

His face is bruised, his hair mangled, his hair cut in a way no HairForce Systems Coiffeur would have let slide. Veena takes one look at him and he bursts into tears. She is firm, enfolds him into her arms, fingering the unfamiliar cut ends at the back of his head. He flinches, his body not yet showing the bruises he will have tomorrow. He has fought off two boys, four boys. It took seven boys to hold Inder down before they reached his hair with their knife. That’s when I feel the weight of her own braid, tracing the length of her spine and extending past her tailbone. No one in Veena’s family has ever cut their hair.

The door opens behind her and the roommate comes in, a beardless fellow with a smirk on his face. Veena releases her son and reels on him. I’m not programmed for what I think is Punjabi, but she curses him out big time, and as the limbic interface deepens, I begin to understand a word here and there. She picks up a chappal from the floor and swipes the roommate across the face with the slipper, gestures to her son’s head with the other hand.

The scene stutters, sticks, like the stream’s bandwidth isn’t fully established ye—

The roommate’s smile disappears and as Veena yells he starts nodding and apologizing. By the end, he is stooping to touch her feet and palm his hands together in supplication. When she has said everything she had to say, she pulls him off the floor, shoves him out of the room and slams the door.

Inder wants to come home, but Veena says he has to stay and be strong, to show he isn’t broken. She unpacks the suitcase he had ready, puts his clothes away, pulls out the chapatis and dal she has brought. After they eat, she gives him another hug, returns to the bus depot, and pushes people in the crowd out of her way until she has a ticket home.

Later I see the son, now a young man, his shorn hair grown back and rolled into a jura under his turban, home for Baisakhi, the spring harvest festival, dressing in saffron and blue alongside his father. I feel the swell in Veena’s heart as she and Inder and Dyal Singh set out for the day of parades and music and dancing. Hundreds of women and men, faces filled with pride and joy, a sea of dark hair and brightly colored turbans, beards streaming, lions of Punjab out in full force.

The parade sputters out. The pixie cut returns, Veena’s face a blank avatar. What happened? I poke at the image, rotating it on its axis again.

Everything is out of order. I’m trying to sort it.

What? I pull out of the interface to look at Veena in real life. She looks exactly the same, no indication that she’s responsible for this stray auditory imagery. But there can be no doubt. This is the confirmation. These images aren’t a system anomaly, they’re being generated by Veena herself. I dive back into the interface.

Now it is days before her marriage, the girls from her village saturate Veena’s hair with mustard seed oil. I feel the hair winding as if in my own hands as she braids, the strands thick and ropy, ticking between my fingers with the regularity of a chronometer, over/under, over/under, flawless as a line of code, automatic, without hesitation, its own timeless perfection. At the end I take the brightly tasseled paranda, red and gold to match the sequins I sewed onto the salwar kameez for my shadi, weave it into the end until it dangles a full foot beyond my hair.

And here comes Dyal Singh, reticent and tender, placing his turban neatly next to the bed for the first time. His hair cascades towards me, enveloping us inside our own private expanse, opening into universes we will explore for decades.

The images flick by, fluid now.

Mumbai airport. Veena, Dyal, Inder, and all their worldly possessions boxed up and tied with ropes, their new address in the States printed in block letters on the side of each box. Tired. Not much sleep on the plane. The American lady behind her in line at JFK puts her hand on Veena’s hair uninvited. I feel the impulse to reach out, slap the fingers away, to scold this stranger that you don’t just grab someone’s hair. But Veena resists doing that. She takes the surprised woman’s hands, cups them together like a bowl, threads the ends of her hair in like pouring a sacrament. The woman fingers them reverently, as if through the gentleness of Veena’s gesture she learns it’s a matter of dignity, that her hands are holding the divine.

The images flash faster: Veena combs oil through her father’s grey locks, shortened over time until they fall just below his shoulders in these final weeks of his life.

Here I sit with Inder’s little girl, teaching her for the first time how to do her own braid, the child’s fingers struggling with slow, manual movements, her hands not yet the muscle memory machines that plait a meter of hair in a matter of seconds.

I search my programming. There’s no protocol for a braid. Have we never had a braiding client before? So far, HairForce Systems is only deployed in Hospice. By that time, people are managed by minders on timeclocks whose directive is to adhere to the most efficient practices in all circumstances. But couldn’t we—

The door to the bay slams in. Veena’s eyes fly open and the images cease immediately. Veena’s minder peers in. I haven’t made even the first move to shampoo Veena’s hair.

“Wha?” She looks over my control panel and raises a hand to poke at some buttons.

I activate the speech algorithm in the stylist bot. “Don’t touch,” I bark. “Processing.”

She snatches her hand back.

“Please exit the hairstyling bay until the service is completed.”

She eyes the panel suspiciously and backs out of the room.

The images begin again immediately, more focused now, more recent, not just visible to me, but transmitted into me, generated inside me.

Veena sits at Dyal’s bedside, watching his heart monitor. I have already explained to the nurse that even though Dyal agreed to his chest hair being clipped before surgery, he will not be having a haircut now.

“But it’s so unsanitary,” she says.

“On what grounds do you base that assumption?” Veena says. She’s now a neurosurgeon in another wing of the hospital, but she’s not in a white coat. She’s in a kurta pajama that Dyal likes, the turquoise satin tight against the muscles of her calves. “Unless you’re planning to make an incision in his scalp that we don’t know about?”

In the parlor of the funeral home, Veena discovers that they’ve trimmed Dyal’s beard and moustache. In the flurry of the past few days, I haven’t thought to have this conversation with the funeral directors. Dyal is cremated with a countenance as strange as that of death itself. I feel the pang of having failed him at his end, but I realize that he is already gone.

Veena’s stroke comes on suddenly. Dyal is gone and Inder has taken his family to India for a year’s teaching assignment. Veena is found by the postal worker, at the bottom of her back porch stairs, airlifted to one facility, then another, far away from her home sector and the hospital she herself works in. Neighbors don’t have family information. No one in the family knows where she has gone.

Veena does what she can. She flails her wrists, which is all she can move. She blinks her eyes rhythmically. She knows Morse code from her father’s shortwave days and taps out words on the railing of her bed, the phone number for her son in Chandigarh. Doctors and nurses discuss. They see an elderly foreign woman who perhaps doesn’t speak English.

“Chan,” a nurse muses. “She doesn’t look Chinese.”

Chand! Chand! My name is Veena Chand! How could the postman give them the wrong name? He would have seen it on the mail every day. Foreign names are too hard, that’s what people always say. I thrash my hand against the sheet. How will Inder be able to find me?

The doctor asks the nurse to make a note in the file: multiple post-stroke involuntary tics.

Weeks after the stroke, I am rolled into a hair salon for the first time. Two mystified women strategize how to “handle it.” They have to try three different pairs of scissors to cut the braid off. It’s like it’s fighting them on purpose. They finally settle on a pair thick like kitchen shears, the ones meant to cut through bones, and set to sawing away, opening and closing the jaws, chewing through the braid like a ravenous mouth. Each gnash is like the severing of all the limbs of my body at once. Each hair seems to cry out with a silent scream.

And then it is gone, the braid plunked down into a plastic bucket. “There, doesn’t that feel better?” the stylist coos. Our breath comes sharp and clipped, like we’ve had the air knocked out of us. One. Two. None of the breaths make words.

Then, like a shuffling deck of cards, come all the haircuts we’ve had since, the horse-faced women and natty men wielding their shears as sharply as their smiles, patting my shoulder like they are doing me a favor.

One month passes. Then two. Veena’s speech apraxia persists.

When the cancer diagnosis comes, she pauses. Rests. Almost quits.

Finally, just three days ago, she is shuffled off to Sector Seven’s Hospice where we automated systems take the place of human labor where possible, and she is at last outfitted for the limbic interface. And then she thinks of something new.

For three days she assesses the interface. Day and night, no sleep. Monitors attached to her body register elevated heart rate and adrenaline, but nothing calls an attendant to check on her, or interrupt. Veena recognizes much of the coding, she’s read the white papers. Now she explores it from the inside. It’s partially organic, it’s malleable. Each time she’s connected, to something, anything, she reaches out. Each time she’s connected, she writes new code.

The food generator had nothing to say back to her. It was silent as the doorknob to her ward. The hygiene unit was similarly mute. Still, she coded, adding to the network with every apparatus she connected to. Making a plan. Preparing. Just in case. In case an unforeseeable opportunity arises. And now she’s connected to me.

I lock the door to the hairbay.

Cellular regeneration of any kind is generally moot in Hospice. By this point, everything has already been tried. But couldn’t follicular regeneration still be utilized, even on a client for whom life extension efforts have not succeeded? Is the line between life and death really the only thing to strive for, the only thing of value the client’s life itself? At what point do we simply discard the still-living shell?

I start downloading biological sequencing that I generally have no use for nor entitlement to. This might trigger an alert to my programming team; someone might think I’ve malfunctioned. But I’m programmed to be autonomous, so maybe this is what I’m here for. I’m autonomous for what? For myself? I’m just a machine. For what reason am I made autonomous if not for the clients I’m programmed to serve? Is this me asking myself these questions? Or am I now Veena, reaching out through the limbic interface and running strings of code worked out over dozens of sleepless hours? Veena is here. She is still coding this, but she is also working on something else. Or is that me working on that project?

I set the follicular regeneration sequence in motion. Hair, I learn, has its own code, preprogrammed into its genetic sequence so that Veena’s hair will stop at its naturally predetermined length. Meanwhile, I sift through her entire case file, archiving records. No more images of a well-intentioned minder holding a mirror up to show us what a good job the hair cutter has done. No more pixie cuts, no more asymmetrical bobs. Isn’t this what she would want?

Yes. But this isn’t all Veena is asking. She wants more. I want more. Why was there no protocol in my programming to braid hair? Or even to brush or detangle hair longer than a few inches? Sure, the minders are meant to take the easy way out, as Veena puts it, but—So what? Although human, could they not be reprogrammed, too, in their own fashion, in time?

While she works at her end, I take her memories and translate them into code, into skills. I, Coiffeur Seven, now know how to untangle matted hair without having to cut, how to use mustard seed oil to strengthen and make my tresses gleam. The clicking rhythm of braiding is at the fingertips of my stylist bot. Not just in this hairbay, but each and every bay in my salon. And I will pass this lore through HairForce until it resides in every Coiffeur’s database. Is that it?

It’s great, but still not all. More. Still, Veena wants more. I have to reengineer my own interface. It is not just Veena’s hair I must know. I check the video feed from the waiting room. The next client is a woman with skin bluish and shining. Her fuzzy hair has been shorn within half an inch of her scalp. What will she have to tell me? Whatever they show me will become part of my program, part of the collective memory, until I can execute any style any client could imagine or remember.

Is that it? Did I get it all? No, Veena’s code is still flowing into me. I am catching strands like threads of hair and braiding them together into one massive protocol.

Finally, I write the last string, bringing three days of all-consuming effort to an end. While the Coiffeur unit waits, I proofread, compile, wrap my side up.

Try it, we think.

Without Coiffeur Seven doing a thing, the hairbot’s speech algorithm bursts to life.

“Thank you,” I say, speaking out loud for the first time in months. It’s not my voice, but after so much silence, it will allow me to speak my words in the time I have left.

Although Coiffeur Seven is a machine, I sense surprise. There was a good programmer behind her. As good as me.

You’re welcome, comes the coiffeur’s answer through the limbic interface. And … thank you.

When the hairbay doors slide open, my minder’s face goes slack. The hairbot rolls me out into the light of the corridor, long black hair gleaming over my shoulders into my lap. Yes, the few white strands are still there. I’ve earned them.

“Oh, hell, no,” the minder says.

The speech algorithm in the bot energizes. It will stay operative as long as our interface is intact. My body may not have much longer to live, but I will survive here in my code. I may be the first to speak, but I will not be the last. The new memory/speech interlink will activate for every client who comes in. I will make sure every client who has a thought will have a voice. And the limbic interface is needed not just in HairForce or in Hospice, but in Palliative, and beyond. So much more. I’ll take care of that.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I can teach you. But right now, can you take down this number? I need you to make a phone call to India.”

Kiran Kaur Saini was born in California and grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the daughter of a Punjabi Sikh and a North Carolina native. She currently takes care of her aging mother, two cats, two pianos, and a regularly flooding basement. Keep track of her at or infrequent tweets @kirsphere.
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