Dystopian Short Story Competition - Winner

Karmen Spiljak

Library of Emotions
Dystopian Short Story Competition


Karmen Spiljak is a Slovenian-Belgian writer with a passion for stories that say something about the world. This is her first competition win. Her life revolves around understanding people who exist only on pages.
She currently lives in São Paulo with her husband and two cats. You can read more of her writing on www.karmens.net

Library of Emotions By Karmen Spiljak

The last puddles of black rain evaporate into the tattered clouds. The instant I get out of my transport capsule, the humidity hits me like a wet cloth that sticks to the skin.
I put on my shades and tug the rim of my hood. The white sand reflects sunlight like a mirror and I don’t want to start my day with a blinding headache. Not today.
The library of emotions is half an hour’s walk through the dunes. It’s not so much the distance as the effort needed to plod through the sand that wears you down in the end.
For once, I want to get there before everyone with priority tickets, before the diver-hunters finish their shift and before the plantation workers get their morning break. There’s about half an hour, right before they arrive, when the library is empty and I can gorge on all the emotion I want.
I think about that, as my feet sink into the warm sand. The trick is not to rush, but to let the sand settle before making the next step. Sometimes I imagine how it was before, when the world was still green and the ocean wasn’t something people feared.
The waves are raging today, whiplashing at the rocks, almost as if they tried to lick the glass walls of the library. The wind starts to make the sand whirl. Only when I reach the rock and I’m standing in front of the library, do I stop to shake it off my clothes.
Then, I bring my wrist closer to the scanner, so that it reads the code on my biometric tattoo.
‘Ash 12032135,’ says the machine, ‘state your request.’
‘I request permission to enter.’
There’s a beep. The door opens.
‘Permission granted.’
Inside, the heavy air-conditioning reminds me of how liberating it is to breathe air at less than 40 degrees. I don’t stop at the entrance screen to browse through the catalogue. It’s always the same emotion I’m after, the one I need to make my life bearable.
Most people pick the popular ones like happiness, love, joy, peace. Since the time in the booths is limited, you rarely get to pick more than one. That’s why I choose kindness. It brings joy, love, hope and empathy, which means I get five instead of just one. I keep this a secret. The more people choose the same emotion, the more likely the system will overload and the file will get stuck in a loop. They’ll need time to find and fix the error, which could take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years. I just can’t imagine living without kindness.
Before I close the doors of the booth, I put on the headphones and check that the sound works. Then, I lower myself onto the silver bar stool and turn up the volume. You don’t have to close your eyes to enjoy the experience, but I prefer to. It helps me imagine what the voice is saying and makes the whole experience more intense, more real.
‘Welcome back, Ash 12032135. What emotions will you play today?’ the machine says.
‘Kindness, please.’
‘Use the remote control to navigate through the recording,’ the machine says. ‘After half an hour, the system will automatically switch off. You can file a request to extend the time, but in order to ensure access...’
I skip the introduction. Anyone who’s ever tried to file such a request knows it’s rarely approved, not unless your trauma is bigger than everyone else. In the background, a flute starts to play.
‘Kindness is an emotion invoked by acts of generosity, consideration and concern for others,’ the machine says. ‘In the Old World, before the Big Flood of 2053, kindness was widespread and considered to be one of the Knightly Virtues. Today...‘
I fast-forward to my favourite part. The one I came for.
‘Examples of kindness. Saying thank you to someone who doesn’t hear it often.’
I pause and imagine a plantation, the cracked mud surrounded by glass walls, the suspended slabs that block the sunlight, but not the heat, the people, sweating in their long tunics and hats, hunched over the vegetables they’re not allowed to eat. I imagine one of them looking up and wiping the sweat off his face, looking at me, checking that I’m not a mirage.
I bring them a jug of iced tea, fresh and cold, and say: ‘Thanks for feeding us.’
Afterwards, I un-pause, because I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to imagine a response. Besides, isn’t kindness supposed to be about giving?
‘Sharing an intimate gesture with a person who needs it,’ the machine says.
In my mind, I’m at the docks, knee-deep in the warm ocean, waiting for the diver-hunters to end their shift. The sun is a giant orange, rising from the water, pleasant and warm, not broiling like in real life.
The seagulls start to gather and cry into the distance, as the diver-hunters emerge from under the surface, with oxygen tanks hanging over their striped uniforms. As soon as they see me, a lone figure near the shore, they clutch their nets. I’m not wearing a uniform, so they know I’m not there to check their catch, but I’m not a poacher either.
That’s what I like about kindness, it inspires trust. I was wrong, it’s not five emotions, but six in one. This makes me smile.
I push my thoughts aside and extend my arms to offer help with the nets. They hesitate at first, but once I help one of them, they’re less reluctant. We bring out all the catch, mostly octopuses and crabs, but there’s some fish, too. Once in the collection tanks, the catch will be processed for sale.
I hold this image in my head, my finger suspended above the pause button.
‘Be kind to someone who acts as if they don’t deserve it. They need it the most,’ the machine says.
I scratch my wrist. Not today. I don’t deserve this yet.
Images flood my mind, the same ones that haunt my dreams, but I focus my energy to stop them from pushing forward.
Instead, I picture my colleague Lena right before I take over the shift. She’s slumped in the hard plastic chair and stares at the screens.
By the time I arrive, her eyes are red from sorting out drone footage. It’s my job to identify perpetrators before the forms are sent off to the Public Offences Office. I’d check the three categories from most to least serious, first critical, then suspicious and normal at the end. This way, I can go to sleep without having too many nightmares.
The hardest to process are the critical ones, the poachers, robbers, killers, people gone mad from the heat. Lena and I have seen it all. It’s not a job I like, nor one I marvel at. Someone more ambitious and precise would do much better, which is why I hold on to it.
The images I held back comes through. A young boy, his scruffy pants hanging loosely on his hips, as he’s pulling out a net with stolen clams. The footage zooms in and locks onto the close-up. The database search begins. I can’t help but hope that his name won’t pop up. It does, though, because the drones got very good at reading the biometric tattoos.
Samir 21062058, twelve years old, the oldest of nine siblings. As soon as his details are confirmed, the file is sent off. All I can do is delay it by trying to correct the details. So I do. What I gain is a few minutes, perhaps hours, before the watchers at the Public Offences Office will take notice.
I’m not a good person. If I was, I’d find a better way to survive, even if by stealing food from corporations like Samir. I’m a coward, though. That’s why I keep on coming to the library, hoping I’ll learn how to be human. I may not deserve kindness yet, but maybe tomorrow, or the day after.
Before I know it, the machine beeps. My time in the booth is up. The door opens. There’s already a queue of five people, waiting to take my space.
‘The headphones,’ says the first person in line, a woman of around twenty, with wide eyes and blackened fingers, probably from cleaning up after the storm.
‘Oh,’ I say, realising they’re still around my neck. ‘I’m sorry.’
I hand her the headphones and am about to leave, when she turns to me.
‘What should I choose?’ she whispers. ‘I’ve only been here once before.’
I size her up, the dark hollows under her eyes, the reddish marks on her neck where the sand has irritated the skin. Behind her, someone grunts. I consider speeding things up by saying one of the usual things, like ‘depends on what you need’ or ‘the most popular ones are at the top’, but her pleading gaze makes me pause.
So I lean closer, till I can see the grains of sand in her hair and smell the rain and the beach rubble on her clothes.
‘Choose kindness,’ I say.
She pauses, perhaps unsure if I’m pulling her leg.
‘Trust me,’ I say. ‘You won’t regret it.’
The muscles on her face relax. She smiles. She catches a strand of loose hair and coaxes it back behind her ear.
‘Will you move on? Haven’t got all day,’ the next person in the queue shouts out.
‘Thank you,’ she says and rests her hand on my shoulder, then slowly, as if we had all the time in the world, she pulls me into a hug.
I freeze.
Layers of yesterdays, hours of surveillance footage, the submitted offences, they all peel off and melt into water. Tears pour down my cheeks, hot and sticky. I don’t stop them. Instead, I put my arms around the woman and return the hug.  

Judges Comments

One of the things we've learned living through the past year is that a dystopia isn't likely to be alien, but familiar yet disconcertingly different. This is the sense generated by Library of Emotions, the winning entry in WM's Dystopian Short Story competition. The first few paragraphs of Karmen Spiljak's climate change fiction so effectively set the scene that the reader understands that the effort needed to plod through the sand is everyday - just how things are in this changed world.

Making the world of the story so credible, and relatable, from the start is one of the keys to its success. We immediately relate to the constant threat and sense of peril beyond our own front doors, that we're so aware of in 2021, and can transfer that emotion to understanding that in this story, the threat comes from natural elements raging out of control: the weather; the ocean. The changed climate.

As the story progresses, Karmen amplifies the strangeness, piling on more and more details of how this world differs from our own, and the sense of loss it represents as human emotions are rationed and policed in a world of constant surveillance. The narrator is a rebel in this arid, sterile, increasingly terrifying world, because they cling to their humanity, their frailty, their flaws. They chose kindness - literally but also metaphorically. Dystopian writing is always about what we fear now, but also what may offer hope, and the bleakly believable setting and theme of Karmen's excellent story is given the necessary light to provide relief in its darkening shade by the unshakeable human instinct towards empathy and kindness.



Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the Dystopian Short Story Competition was Michael Lynch, Birmingham, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk
Also shortlisted were: Sally Curtis, Poole, Dorset; Andrew French, Redcar, North Yorkshire; Phil Gilvin, Swindon, Wiltshire; Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; Catrin Mascall, Cambridge; Chris Hedley, Gibraltar; AJ Reid, Heswell, Wirral; Jonathan Shaw, Shenley, Hertfordshire; Deborah Thompson, London N16; Emily Tritton, Orpington, Kent; Joanne Ward, Welling, Kent