Counting Heads by James Kariuki

“It seems to be working,” the man’s voice said. It sounded distant, with the reverberation of his voice echoing down a long empty corridor. The room was completely dark. Apart from the sounds of a few murmuring voices and the beeps and whirs of unseen machinery, everything was still. The air smelled unnaturally sterile and he had no bearing on whether it was cold or hot in the room. Maybe it was just perfect, like the little bear’s bed and porridge in fairy tales he had read as a child. So why did he feel like everything was terribly wrong?

“Is it working or does it seem to be working?” a woman’s voice asked, sounding further away than the man she was addressing. She sounded familiar. Her accent was very distinct and Koyo racked his brain to try to remember where he knew her from. He couldn’t think straight and his head hurt as he tried to remember where he was. The man’s voice was getting excited and the sound of frantic typing on a keyboard punctuated every other sentence he spoke.

“The computational mechanism is working at full capacity now, but it’s unstable,” he said, his voice sounding raised, as if he was shouting at a person a long distance away. “We may need to reboot and adjust a few things but I think we have it this time,” he said in a softer tone, almost a whisper, as if to somebody standing next to him.

Koyo tried to open his eyes. They stayed firmly shut and the effort needed to open them seemed to be impossible for him to muster. He tried to take a deep breath but his diaphragm did not move. He felt like a floating bubble of thoughts completely disembodied from his physical self.

“Where am I? How did I get here?” The more he tried to remember, the more the voices echoed in his head. They reverberated louder in the room he was floating in.

“What’s happening?” the woman with the familiar accent asked. She was closer now and he could sense the anxiety in her voice.  It started coming back to him. She was short and wore her hair in a tight bun. She was foreign. A white woman he had met in the past. How long ago he could not remember.

“It’s shutting down,” the man answered, all his previous enthusiasm suddenly gone from his voice.

“Switch off the power and put it on stand-by. Don’t let it melt down like you did all the others.” She had introduced herself as an American, Koyo remembered. His train of thought suddenly halted. He felt lightheaded, and panic set in shortly before everything went silent again. There was only darkness and silence and he could feel his individual thoughts fading into the distance.


Three and a half years of unemployment had been taking its toll on Koyo. He spent most of his time thinking about the path his life should have taken. He would have been head of the IT department at the bank by now, enjoying all the perks that would have brought; a big house and a comfortable car rather than squeezing into a shared apartment and risking his life in rickety matatus and speeding bodabodas. Things turned for the worse, however, when the theft happened. An inside job resulted in the loss of ninety million shillings wired from customers’ accounts. It cost him his job and sullied his reputation; his face was plastered in the news and collective memory for months, even surpassing the public interest in the serial killer known as the Head-Hunter who had been dumping headless bodies across the city for years now. The criminal case against Koyo was eventually dropped, but he knew he would never go back to his former career.

“Wake up or you’ll be late for your interview,” Jose said while dragging Koyo halfway out of the bed by his feet. Koyo’s head was pounding from last night’s drinking. He wanted to go to bed early but his room-mate insisted that they should go out for one drink. It would bring him good luck and give him a confidence boost before the job interview.

“Fuck you,” Koyo mumbled as he kicked Jose and tossed himself back into the bed. “This is your fault.”

“How is it my fault?” Jose laughed. “You really need to learn how to think for yourself my man. Get up and go get that job. I’m sure it pays a lot if they’re willing to take a chance on a famous bank robber.”

“Falsely accused bank robber,” Koyo corrected him and pulled the covers back over his head.

“Whatever. Get up my man, before this ship sails and you’re stuck here for another year selling drugs to your tourist friends.”

“Ah shit,” Koyo groaned as he sat up and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. “I’m never drinking with you again Jose. I’d rather die of thirst, I swear to God.” He threw his blanket to one side and eased his legs out of bed. He held his head in his hands and closed his eyes, hoping the nausea would go away soon.

It was finally the day when he would have a chance to get a real job. Three years of selling skunk weed to tourists in seedy clubs had earned him enough to make a living, but his nerves were frayed. He was always on edge, looking over his shoulder to see if anyone was following him. He never picked up phone calls from numbers he didn’t recognise. He was turning into a paranoid recluse who only kept the company of strung-out junkies and the untrustworthy tour guides who brought them to him.

Bosco was the guide that had told him about this employment opportunity. He was unattractive in Koyo’s opinion, but his medium-ugly looks seemed to endear him to  waspy women who believed his promises of decadence and followed him blindly to Club Jay’s, where Koyo was waiting to fuel their nightlife experience. Bosco was loud and rude most of the time, but Koyo tolerated him for bringing him most of his business. He often demanded free weed in return for bringing him buyers, and Koyo obliged only because he couldn’t stand the self-serving woe-is-me tirade that he would have to sit through if he didn’t pay the kickback.

“I have someone who would like to talk to you about a job,” Bosco had told him that night.

“I already have a job. Are you forgetting who works to provide your white girls with something to help them ignore your ugly face?” retorted Koyo.

“It’s not time for your stupid jokes right now. There’s someone looking for a guy like you to work for them. You used to be a computer science guy didn’t you? Very smart with a big brain?”

“Yes, I did, and I don’t think my brain is bigger than whatever is inside your own massive head Bosco,” Koyo said. It was unusual for him to indulge Bosco, but he could sense that this conversation seemed to be headed somewhere, for once.

“Good,” said Bosco, relieved that Koyo was taking him seriously this time. “She was supposed to meet me here tonight but something came up at her job and she couldn’t make it. I’ll give her your number and tell her to get in touch.”

“Okay, no problem.”

“How about a little weed then, in exchange for me bringing you another wonderful business opportunity?” Bosco asked with a broad smile that Koyo thought was quite menacing.

“You’d ask for weed even if you brought me bad news,” Koyo sighed as he pulled out a bundle of joints from his shirt pocket and handed it over to Bosco. “Thank you. I’ll be waiting for that call.”


Koyo arrived at the office building ten minutes early. The hangover was still intense even after a cold shower and a bodaboda ride. His eyes felt heavy and his mouth was dry. He cursed his decision to go out drinking with Jose for the tenth time that morning. He stood at the gate for a moment to catch his breath and let the heavy pounding in his head pass. The office building was a shiny behemoth of a structure, covered in glass that reflected the morning sun onto the pavement, blinding anyone who was walking by. A group of security guards in black uniforms sat on the other side of the gate looking suspiciously at the scruffy young man standing there on the roadside staring at the upper floors of the building.

“I’m here to see Janet from GigaCloud,” Koyo said to the guard. The guard began walking towards the gate the moment Koyo started approaching it, and their movement eerily reflected one another’s.

“Oh, you’re very welcome,” said the guard. His initial hostile face softened suddenly, breaking into a wide smile.

The gate slid open a few feet, just enough to let Koyo in and slid back shut immediately he was inside. The guard began walking towards the front door of the complex and gestured at Koyo to follow him. A short flight of steps led to a high glass door that automatically slid open as they approached it. A blast of cold air-conditioning hit Koyo in the face and made him aware of how dusty and polluted the city air outside was.

“Have a seat, Ms Williams will be with you in a short while,” said the woman seated at the receptionist desk. It was a high wall of glossy wood behind which he could only see her hair tied into a bun. The reception area was furnished with a few leather seats and a small wooden table right in front of the receptionist’s desk. Multiple glass doors led into corridors where Koyo could see a few people walking past in a hurry, as if they were late for some unknown meetings or behind their schedules.

Janet Williams had called Koyo the very next morning after Bosco had told him about the job opportunity.  He had asked what the job that she had available was and her answers had still left him unsatisfied.

“Well, we need a person with a good knowledge of how computers work. GigaCloud is looking to improve our current remote computing service and you might be the person for the job,” Janet had said over the phone. “If you are interested in this opportunity, I would love to meet with you and let you know more about our current project, as well as interview you for the job.”

Several failed deals and undercover drug busts had left Koyo with a keen sense of distrust for deals that sounded too good to be true; but he reluctantly agreed to the meeting. He had been sure that no employer would be willing to risk giving him a job ever again, and the doubts still clawed at him as he accepted Janet’s invitation. Sitting in the waiting area, waiting to meet Janet, his mind wandered to the possibilities of this new job. GigaCloud was famous worldwide for providing high capacity digital storage, and was rumoured to be creating the biggest storage capacity servers of the smallest size the world had ever seen. Maybe he could finally get his career back on track and become a respected computer engineer he always dreamed of being.

“Please follow me, Ms Williams will see you now,” the receptionist’s voice interrupted Koyo’s daydream. He followed her through one of the glass doors and into the corridor where he had earlier seen people rushing about their day.

Janet Williams was waiting at the entrance to a boardroom. She was a tall white woman dressed in a lab coat and high heels that reminded Koyo of a cartoon character. She looked up from the papers she was reading and smiled warmly at Koyo. “Welcome to Gigacloud. I have been looking forward to meeting you Mr. Okello.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you as well,” replied Koyo with a wide grin, one that he wore to mask the discomfort of being formally addressed. Ever since his troubles with the bank, he felt a lump grow in his throat whenever he was referred to as Mr. Okello.

Janet and Koyo sat across from each other at a round conference table. She placed the papers she had been holding on the table and smiled at Koyo before speaking to him in a voice that was even more excited than she had sounded over the phone. “I want to get it out of the way. Your previous employment history is of no concern to us. We only look out for skills and I think you will be a good fit for the work we are doing here.”

“I appreciate your confidence in me, but I must also admit that I have no experience in building high capacity storage systems,” said Koyo, shortly before his inner voice cursed at him for talking too much.

“That is not a problem. Most of our staff are trained in-house anyway,” said Janet. “What we see in you is the potential, and from what Bosco told me about you, I knew you would be a great candidate for this job.” Janet saw the perplexed look on Koyo’s face and continued, “he simply mentioned that his friend was a highly qualified IT professional with a level-headed personality. That is the kind of person we’re always looking out for.”

After half an hour of interview questions that were, according to Janet, mere formalities, Koyo was asked to go to the door end of the corridor. “That is the human resource office. You will find your contracts and you can go over them. Welcome to GigaCloud,” she said as she stood up and firmly shook Koyo’s hand. “We are happy to have you.”

At the end of the corridor was a door with a keycard lock that the receptionist unlocked with the badge hanging around her neck before gesturing at him to walk in. Koyo walked into the brightly lit white-walled room and was taken aback by the complete lack of furniture. As he looked back to the two women, the door quickly shut between them and a thick cloud of gas filled the room, knocking him to the ground within a few seconds.

“The new subject is ready for preparation,” he heard Janet shout as he slowly drifted into unconsciousness.


Koyo woke up again, still feeling as if he was floating in empty space, aware of his existence but unable to move a single muscle. A bright light seemed to shine through his eyelids and made his eyes hurt. He struggled to open his eyes and could see a spotlight shining at his face through the narrow slit he was able to force open.

“There’s something here,” a voice said excitedly as Koyo saw a human figure block the light in front of him.

The shadow gave relief from the bright light and enabled Koyo to open his eyes a little wider. The effort it took felt like his eyelids were tied down by solid iron weights. He could make out the figure of a man wearing a white lab coat over a dull grey suit. His gloved hands were fiddling around Koyo’s chest area, though Koyo could feel nothing of what he was doing. With the man right in front of him, Koyo suddenly realised that he was somehow upright, though he could not tell whether he was seated or strapped to a wall. The man stepped aside and once more Koyo’s eyes forced themselves shut to shield from the bright spotlight.

“Move him to the main lab and connect the cables,” said the man and Koyo felt himself suddenly moving out of the spotlights glare and once again half opened his eyes to see walls of polished glass dimly reflecting his image as he was being pushed quickly through the corridors. He was able to get a good look when they stopped in front of a door with a sign that read ‘MAIN LAB.’  It was his face for sure, but he looked expressionless, as if he was dead or in a coma. His head was the only thing he could recognise. The rest of his body was missing. In its place was a mass of tubes and wires going into his neck and temples. He was just a head, attached to a trolley full of electronic components and machinery.

“Here we go young man,” said the man as he pushed Koyo’s trolley body to the end of the room. “It’s time to plug you in. Don’t worry, you won’t be seeing any of this much longer.”

Koyo drifted in and out of consciousness as the man fiddled around with the wires and tubes. Each time his mind drifted away he felt like he was waking up from a bad dream, only to find himself in another nightmare. He was constantly thinking about things that made no sense. Random numbers seemed to flash through his mind and an infinite river of information made him feel like he was drowning in some kind of space that no human had ever been in before.

“Don’t panic. Let your mind stay open to whatever it is you are seeing. Most people die immediately but you’ve been fighting it for two weeks.” The man spoke as he plugged in cables and flipped switches on Koyo’s mechanical support structure. Koyo’s eyelids fluttered in panic and he finally managed to feel his lips tremble in fear. His mind jumped from the information river and he felt himself returning to his physical head. His eyes saw clearly and there was Janet talking to a group of people, standing among  four other heads just like his.

Janet looked away from her colleagues and made eye contact with Koyo. She walked over to him and inspected him from head to trolley wheel. “He is fully conscious now?” she asked the technician who had been with Koyo.

The man nodded and moved away to work on the monitor on a desk right beside them. Koyo tried to speak but his lips could only flinch awkwardly. The only thing he had control over was his eyes and his thoughts. Janet wrote in her notebook before closing it and leaning in to speak to Koyo.

“Mr. Okello, you have been quite difficult to work with but you are stable now. You will be sedated so that your brain can do the work we need without exposing you to unnecessary torture,” she said with a giggle.

Koyo’s pupils dilated in horror as the technician took a syringe and injected it into the tubes at Janet’s command. He felt the sedative taking effect, and watched as Janet leaned in once more, her face glowing with pride at the success of her project. She whispered into his ear as he slipped into a darkness that he now knew would be eternal, “You are providing a great service to the future of technology. Not many brains are wired like yours, but we were lucky to find you. It would have been a shame to throw you out like the others. Rest now, we only need the part of you that works best in silence.”


James kariuki

James Kariuki is an aspiring film maker who has been practicing social distancing since 2018. Once called an "unsuccessful author" during a Twitter fight, he hopes this publication slightly improves his enemies' opinion of his writing career.

James kariuki

James Kariuki is an aspiring film maker who has been practicing social distancing since 2018. Once called an "unsuccessful author" during a Twitter fight, he hopes this publication slightly improves his enemies' opinion of his writing career.