Learning
The Examination

The Examination

I was abruptly roused from a deep slumber by the music. As I squinted my eyes to get used to the darkness of the room, I heard a snoring. It appeared that my assistant was still asleep. Outside the room, I could hear the inspectors. To get ready for the test, we were woken up early. At least they were kind enough to give us some prep time. We hadn’t gotten anything since we wrecked our spacecraft on their frigid world.

I shook off the covers and went to the bathroom to get dressed and clean up. I splashed water on my face, thinking that all we had to do was change the Empress’s hair color. We would be free to board one of their ships and sail back to our homes if she liked the color and thought well of our professional abilities. However, if we disobeyed, we would be imprisoned in their alien research facility for all time, submitting to their continual examination of our kind—the human species.

I wasn’t one to stress, but my assistant was a bit of a head case. Back on Earth, she required therapy, but on this planet, I could only hope for the best. We weren’t going to be using thiothank goodness. One time, my assistant performed a perm on a client who walked in off the street. She was so worried about fitting the rollers correctly that she developed a rashhot to the touch and a bright red color — like dermatitis, but merely from stress. Fortunately, she was able to complete the perm successfully, but we made a note on the client’s record card to book her with a different stylist if she ever came back.

As I stuffed my towels in the hamper, I heard her wake up. We dressed together in our alien prison jumpsuits, and made our way to the café for coffee and toast, the simple human breakfast this species allowed us. When we had eaten, an alien guard led us to a sparkling-clean, white room in which we were to prepare our dirty human selves to touch the Empress — a practical precaution, in case we had any kind of infection.

A computer monitor and phone were attached to the wall, but the only other things in the room were astringent, Kleenex, and a disinfectant gel, with which we were to clean ourselves. I wondered if it was EPA-registered or not. The alien guard stood by, watching. Its gaze made me feel we had done something illegal, but we had only crashed on the wrong planet. I sighed. This would be over soon. We cleansed every possible bit of pathogenic bacteria from our cells, it seemed, until our skin was taut from having no more oilsI hoped this deep cleaning would at least clear up the acne on my forehead.

After we tossed our soiled jumpsuits in the garbage, changed into new suits the guard gave us, and had our cleanup double-checked by the guard, we were finally led into the examination room.

The Empress sat on a marble stool in the center of a bright, circular room, draped in a white cloth with a black towel around her neck and her hair covered in a white cap, so we didn’t know what it looked like. To her side was a table with a haircolor brush, two bowls, five yoyettes, a roll of paper towels, a digital timer, and two pairs of gloves. Several guards stood around the edges of the room, alert, their gazes as sharp as razors. A sensation like needles crawled up my spine and I shivered.

“You can do this,” I reminded myself. I had a cosmetology license, a professional certificate, and a year of advanced education in haircolor. I knew what I was doing.

We stepped toward the Empress and bowed, and she nodded slightly in return, her blue eyes surprisingly gentle. Then a guard came forward and placed on the table a tube of haircolor labeled 7N, a bottle of 20-volume hydrogen peroxide, and a pair of — was that really? — manicuring nippers. The Empress nodded again, and the guard removed her cap.

I nearly laughed with joy when I saw her shoulder-length hair was a virgin level 7 with about 10% grey around the temples. So that’s what she wanted: grey coverage. I understood. She nodded again, the guard stepped away, and we got to work. The nippers, it turned out, were to open the haircolor tube.

While I divided her hair into sections, my assistant mixed the color. I then applied it all over until her greys were completely covered, then I set the timer for 45 minutes. It’s incredible what they have on other planets! When the allotted time had passed, the guards rolled in a portable sink. and after rinsing the color, we used a blow dryer that was suspended from the ceiling by a long cord to dry the hair.

Finally, the moment of judgment. A guard presented the Empress with a mirror as my assistant and I held our breath. As she gazed at her reflection, the faintest smile crossed her lips, then she broke out in a giant grin.

We were quickly taken away and into a small space pod, into which all of our possessions had already been packed, so apparently that was all the guards needed to see. They must have anticipated our victory! With a whooshing sound, the doors closed, and the guards graciously waved goodbye. We launched off the alien planet and began to travel back toward Earth when the pod beeped three times.

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