She Knits the Universe a Pink Angora Sweater
by Bo Balder
Aulis shuts out the frenetic buzz of the arena where she’s competing for an Oikotekt placement in the space navy. Only an Oikotekt, a person of powerful imagination, can hold onto a picture of the universe as it is supposed to be against the reality-altering presence of the Katabiotic aliens.
The Katabiotics’ erratic trajectory leaves a trail of despoiled reality, where physical laws no longer work, suns gutter and whole ecologies have never existed. So far they have cost humanity only the planet New Hope and its inhabitants, but the Katabiotics could potentially destroy the entire human sphere in the galaxy. Ordinary weaponry doesn’t work against them. There is nowhere to flee to. The economy is collapsing and people everywhere congregate in fear, pray, drink, make desperate love or kill themselves, whatever their nature tells them to.
The navy needs the Oikotekts, or Cobblers as they call themselves, to repair the world when the aliens come.
Aulis lifts her virtual needles, ready to knit the fabric of space and time. The needles glow golden against the black of space, represented on the giant screen in the battle room. In her haptic gloves she holds an ordinary circular needle, on her table lie several kinds and thicknesses of yarn, fuzzy angoras and softest cashmeres, as well as strong linens and smooth silks.
Her contender across the semi-circular battle room is an origami artist. He holds a piece of pink rice paper, one of the many colors and kinds of paper on his prep table.
She’s chosen superwash merino wool in a color called Jupiter Blue, for its stretchiness and smooth knitting. In her mind she transforms herself into Pippi Longstocking with an afro and runs with that.
Both needles and yarns, hands and origami paper are only metaphors for what the contenders will be doing in space. Aulis will be manipulating the layers of the stacked universes, twisting and maybe tearing them in her attempt to knit a wormhole that must be both functional and beautiful to satisfy the battle conditions. Wormholes are used in the battle test because they are self-contained, complex structures that require a huge effort of will and imagination to create, and that’s just what Cobblers need to be able to do.
This is the first heat out here on the memorial ship. The battle tests take place here in remembrance of those who died. She casts one last look at the blasted planet New Hope below, where a tendril of alien-altered space destroyed millions of human lives and a whole ecosystem. Captain Hoshi of the good ship “Termagant’s Talons” who happened to observe this had just managed to imagine herself back in normal space, but she hadn’t been able to bring back billions of years of evolution and centuries of human occupation. Captain Hoshi couldn’t live with the destruction of twenty-million human beings and killed herself. Aulis had put flowers on Hoshi’s memorial earlier today.
Huge masses of people will be watching all over Known Space. The hairs on her nape rise. They always do just before the start signal, as if her body knows something she doesn’t.
The starter horn blows.
Aulis’s needles quiver and spring into action. First the cast-on. A stretchy one. She’s practiced endlessly to work with the needles only, instead of the fingers knitters normally use to support or guide the yarn. Instead, her needles create the yarn from the universe stuff itself. The screen represents it in red against the gold of her needles.
There, she’s got enough stitches to close the loop. She knits a ring, something the origamist can’t hope to create this fast. She sneaks a quick look to see how he is doing, but as she suspected, he’s still folding his pieces of paper for the ring base.
Second round. This is faster because it mimics the normal act of knitting more, and she has a solid start to work with. Round after round flies from her needles, creating a rhythmic glowing tube that will make a perfect, safe and gorgeous entrance to the wormhole. She’s going to win this.
Casting off already. She picks a double cast-off like the one you use for socks, sturdy and stretchy. She’s about to snip of her ‘thread’ when she senses a tremor through her needles.
An origami bird with wings as sharp as laser beams slices through her knitting. Her ring starts to unravel. She tries to twist her needles around to stab the glowing paper bird, but its planes interact with the folds of space more efficiently than her needles and it escapes.
It doesn’t matter anyway. Her knitting falls apart. The nature of knitted fabric is such that one snipped strand can cause the whole structure to unravel and that is happening right now. She tries to pick up the dropped stitches but the unraveling is going too fast, the origami bird has cut through too many strands. She has to concede.
Her hands shake with anger. Now the battle is in effect over she allows herself to feel again and she’s furious. That asshole! Is it even legal to attack an opponent’s work? If it is, it oughtn’t to be.
Aulis lodges a complaint with the jury with one quick swipe of her elbow. She takes off the haptic gloves and turns to watch the origamist leisurely complete his edifice of folded space. It has beautiful progressions of rhombuses, intricate little wings and tucks. But it hardly matters. He’s only won because he destroyed her beautiful knitted ring.
She waits until he completes his construction and has bowed to the applause of the watchers and the jury.
She goes up to him. “I’d congratulate you, but I think you forgot we’re all in this together. Idiot.”
The origamist shrugs and grins. He leans forward to shield his face from the ever-present cameras. “It’s about fighting the enemy and you were the enemy, so grow up, bitch.”
A sore winner too.
Aulis turns on her heels and marches off. What an asshole. She checks the progress of her complaint. She posts to the online forums, which she’d forgotten about in the heat of the moment, and watches support for her position grow. Her fan base argues that it is an omission in the battle rules to not explicitly state that sabotaging another artist’s work is illegal. Many people across the galaxy agree.
Aulis sits in her favorite café, for once without her knitting, and slurps her antimattrocino. Black as a Balrog’s soul, it has so much caffeine. From the corner of her eye she spies the origamist contestant, the cheating asshole, and she turns away so she won’t have to see him. If she didn’t have three quarters of her coffee left to drink, she would have gotten up and left. How dare he invade her coffee place after ousting her from the competition. She knows she’s done well and could have advanced pretty far if he hadn’t sabotaged her.
“That is just so unfair,” someone she hasn’t even noticed says to her.
She looks up to see a slight young person with the most absurdly provincial haircut she’s seen since 2391. Do they never look inside a fashion magazine? It’s blue, for god’s sake. Blue hasn’t been the new black in like four years. But their eyes are kind and they’re smiling. And the blue looks great against their dark brown skin.
“Thanks,” she says. “I’m just brooding on the injustice and the coffee isn’t helping. But I don’t know what else to do.”
“Me neither,” they say. “Apart from the complaint you already made. I think it’ll be granted, the rules will be changed and you’ll get to compete again.”
“Great,” she says. “Hey, you know who I am, but can I get a name?”
They smiled. “Porwill. Male. Poet.”
Aulis smiles back. “Are you competing? Did you make it through your round?”
“Yes and yes.”
She lightly taps his upper arm. “I’m so jealous. Damn. Let me call up your game, I want to see.”
“No please, I’ve already analyzed it a thousand times. No more. And anyway poetry is really boring to look at.”
She spends a very enjoyable coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner with Porwill. They say goodbye. His lips are warm and soft. His kiss tastes metallic and the studs in his tongue, the way poets connect to the underpinnings of the universe, send little shocks to her belly. She kind of wants to drag him home by his blue hair, but it’s only been hours since they met. There’s a contest on.
Aulis calls up Porwill’s heat in her hotel room, head still reeling with drink and possibilities. She tells her body to sober her up and presses run.
It seems a little boring at first. Porwill speaks in his native language. The words sound beautiful and rhythmic, and make sense in the hasty translation, but nothing much seems to happen for quite a while.
A vague, shimmery outline forms. It combines with the translated and spoken words in a way that sparks a physical, emotional response, as if a scarf of sadness has lightly brushed her face. It’s beautiful, and as the space manipulation is spoken into visibility, more veils of emotions shiver across her skin, like a dance.
Wow. No wonder he won. It’s amazing stuff, and the sword dance of his opponent seems fairly mundane in comparison, although Aulis appreciates the sweaty glow and mighty arms of the beautiful dancer. The military in section A clearly favor the swordplay, but Porwill wins in spite of their support.
Aulis lies back on her pillows and turns the wormhole poem over in her mind, the way it made her feel. Porwill is a great poet, and a really nice person besides. And hot, even with the old-fashioned blue hair.
Aulis wakes to the clamor of her inbox. So many congratulations. Has she won the appeal? She doesn’t dare hope yet. A couple of hundred messages down, she finds the drily worded email from the ethical jury commission. Her appeal has been validated, she can retake her heat, her opponent has been disqualified.
For a moment or two after reading the message she feels nothing. Then warmth surges up from her stomach and blooms through her limbs. Her fingertips tingle. She falls back and shouts something wordless and happy against the dull grey ceiling of her bed pod. She’s in the race again!
Today’s going to be awesome. She gets dressed and breakfasted, ready to either practice a new, sturdier configuration of her knit ring, or possibly even compete again this very day. And she’s definitely going to find Porwill again.
The schedule on the competition website shows she doesn’t have to battle again until tomorrow, which is a relief, but then again she has all this energy now. What should she do with it? This afternoon Porwill is having his battle against a painter. She will go and cheer him on.
Even the sad specter of the ruined planet below can’t dent her happy mood. That’s what the contest is for, so she can go and protect her people against the aliens’ cataclysmic influence.
The battle stadium is full of contestants, both losers and winners. Friends as well as people she’s never met before congratulate Aulis on her jury appeal, and it takes her half an hour to find a coffee and a place to sit, with barely moments before the heat starts. To the right, in section A, the military people have their assigned seats. Their serious demeanor and near-identical uniforms give weight to the contest, reminding people of the stakes.
Porwill climbs on the rostrum in his pink poet’s robes. He has no visible haptics. From their kiss she remembers the studs in his tongue and throat. His opponent is a painter, Tresor, who uses real paint on his haptic brush and connected canvas. Aulis gets that; it’s like her use of real yarn.
The referee, a senator, sounds the start horn.
The bout begins. The painter’s movements are frantic, flinging what looks to be random shards of color on the canvas. Porwill allows a long silence to fall before he begins to speak. There is a little lag between his words and the translation on Aulis’s screen, but even incomprehensible, his words have rhythm and rhyme. They stir an emotion inside her that she can’t quite name at first. The universe itself shows purple eddies, a marked contrast to the sharp slices of color Tresor the painter uses. Tresor is setting up an enormous canvas. How will she use all that space for one wormhole?
Porwill’s purple and lilac eddy whirls itself into a wormhole, very cool, while color by color, Tresor’s painting forces itself on the universe. The earth tones she uses, with touches of turquoise, start to look familiar. Aulis isn’t the only one to notice this and within moments the web is throwing up the original for all to see. One of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, the one with the gray hat. Tresor’s creation is beautiful, for all it’s an imitation. The universe rings with color and knowing the outcome makes Aulis more invested in the completion of the work. There’s the eyebrows, the hat. Tresor’s keeping the eyes for last. The left eye, the darkest one first, then the right eye. Ah. Tresor’s putting the wormhole in the pupil. Aulis had been wondering.
Porwill’s wormhole is long finished and keeps churning itself into a stronger and more beautiful ice cream mix. It exudes stability.
Tresor’s wormhole is stable, if very small, but the haptic projection of the painting is falling apart already. It has no internal coherence so the universe can’t hold on to it, and Tresor’s will and imagination are obviously faltering after this huge effort.
Porwill wins. The battle hall erupts in cheers. Aulis watches Tresor slump off the stage, greeted only by a few commiserating friends. Did she lose because of the instability or the lack of originality? Tresor will know in an hour or so, when the judges file their qualitative votes, but it makes Aulis think about her knitting. Is it even art? Maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as she can imagine the universe stable and strong and save humanity from the aliens, but still. It matters to her. What is art? Is a beautiful homage by definition weaker than an original, as yet untested by the final judgment of time passing?
When Porwill’s elation has died down a bit, and they’ve found a little nook where they can dine in peace, she broaches the subject.
“I don’t know,” he says, and feeds her a delicious morsel from his meal. It tastes like the sea. Or anyway, what Aulis imagines the sea tastes like. She’s only been in simulations. “Never ask an artist. When you’ve just created something, it always feels beautiful, doesn’t it? You can judge its merit only after some distance.”
“I agree with the last statement, not the first. I always loathe what I’ve made.”
They gaze at each other’s differences. Their hands intertwine, sending love thoughts through the contacts in their fingertips.
Aulis sighs. Porwill’s grip on her hand tightens. “Something wrong?”
“I’m just kind of bothered by the whole competition,” she says. “We’re all artists. We can all serve in battle. What’s the point of scoring us?”
Porwill scrunches up his face. “I never thought about it that way. So many competitions all the time when you’re a poet. Is it not the same when you’re a knitter?”
“Much more indirectly. People buy your designs, or they don’t. Maybe other designers earn more money, but that doesn’t really say anything about the worth of the design.”
“Ha! Nobody buys poems, that’s for sure,” Porwill says. “Competitions are the only way we can meet other poets or get our stuff across to an audience.”
“I see that. But does that mean they’re good?”
Dessert arrives and they talk about other things. Where they would live, if there was no threat to civilization itself. Porwill thinks an Orbital would be awesome, Aulis dreams of an actual pastoral planet.
They stumble into Aulis’ hotel room, blind with urgency. He puts his warm hands on her skin, his lips on hers, and Aulis sighs.
Afterwards, Porwill murmurs something into her neck. Aulis can’t understand the words, but she knows what they mean. It’s too soon, but—yes.
They both win their next heats. Aulis’s tendons ache from the knitting. Which is weird, because she’s been knitting for pleasure every day since she was a kid. An hour of competition a day should be no more than a warm-up. Porwill massages her with almond oil, his long sensitive fingers stroking along her extensor muscles and the attachment of the triceps, where the knitting pain sits. It feels like the beginning of heaven, but Aulis can’t stop picking at what’s bothering her.
“Maybe it’s psychological,” Aulis says. “Or maybe I should just lose my next heat. I hear she’s a great singer. I will still end up on a battleship.”
Porwill says nothing but keeps on stroking. His fingers seem to be getting stronger already from the twice daily massages. What mental muscle is she flexing with all this competition?
“I’m undecided,” he says. “Only one more heat for the last eight, right? There’s honor in getting that far.”
The table between them seems twice as wide as before. But she really likes Porwill. She should try to explain. “Why are we creative people competing against each other? That makes no sense. How can you compare knitting to poetry to sword fighting?”
“I don’t get it,” Porwill says and grabs her left hand to still its gesturing. “What are you saying? Do you want out of the competition? Don’t you want to serve in battle?”
“No, I mean, I don’t know. There’s something in all this that’s bothering me.”
Porwill’s face is so earnest, trying so hard to understand what she means. Maybe he doesn’t. It’s a lonely thought. She leans forward to kiss him, to stop the loneliness.
There’s an official get-together for the final eight contestants. A party for eight people might be kind of boring so in actuality all contestants and their friends and family are present. It’s a raucous affair, but the cheer has an edge of desperation. They’re not here just for the fun, and whoever wins gets not only fame and fortune but a possibly one-way ticket to battle death.
Seven of the final eight end up at a table together, talking about themselves and each other. Number eight is dancing on her own, lost in the music and her art.
“Tell me why I’m here,” Aulis asks Dorie, an opera singer. “Knitting is just a craft. My designs are fine, but are they worthy of galaxy-wide quarterfinals?”
A frown crosses Porwill’s face. Aulis turns to Dorie.
Dorie waves his hands, laughing, a little bit drunk. But then he calms down and really looks at Aulis. “I might agree with that. But you have something else, I guess.”
Dorie shakes his head. “Perseverance? Technical brilliance? Maybe knitting just resonates with the way the universe works?”
Aulis isn’t satisfied. “Okay, suppose that’s so. How will that help me with reimaging the world when the aliens pass by? I will keep trying longer?” She looks around at the wonderful artists gathered around the table. “Yes, I think I know what I mean now. We’re all so different. It makes no sense to compare and score us. Some of us improvise every time we perform, some of us are technically brilliant, someone like you has a great voice but you need the great composers and musicians to help carry it.
“I think we should work together. If we had a physical enemy, with bodies and ships, we wouldn’t send out our best captains against them on their own? There would be cooperation, battle plans, different roles for different kinds of ships and weapons. Right?”
Everybody at the table is listening. Some are frowning, like Porwill, still caught up in the story of competition and excellence. Others are nodding. The division is easy to see; both Porwill and the painter are used to working alone. The opera singer and the swordfighter know they need other people to shine.
“Why would we compete? Why not work together? Combine people with complementary gifts?”
“I bet that’s going to be how we will be deployed anyway,” the painter says. “The admirals aren’t crazy. So why not enjoy the competition, since we’ve already come so far?”
The moment passes.
Aulis drinks on. Maybe she’s wrong. Maybe she just doesn’t enjoy competing that much. She sleeps in Porwill’s arms that night, skin on skin, breath on breath, to bridge the gulf between their thoughts.
Next morning finds them all gathered for the division of the heats. Aulis draws Porwill. She sees nothing of the other four heats, just stares at the notice board. Now what will she do? She hasn’t thought beyond her feelings, hasn’t planned out any course of action. Can she win from Porwill? Does she want to?
It’s paralyzing. She turns her head and looks into Porwill’s eyes, his bare upper arm warm against hers, last night’s memory still glowing between them. He’s not going to pull punches. For him, winning is the most important thing. She doesn’t think he’s consciously thought through the possible consequences for their relationship, but she just knows in the pit of her stomach that he would choose winning anyway. Whatever follows.
It doesn’t matter. She loves Porwill as he is, or not. It hurts her heart.
“Aulis, wait,” Porwill says.
“Good luck,” he says. “May the best person win.” His face is scrunched up with anguish.
He believes it’s going to be him. Aulis walls up her doubts and believes it’s her, right back at him. He flushes. Aulis hugs him hard, loving every bone and blue hair of him.
“You too, good luck. I’m going to go prepare now.”
Their heat is in an hour.
She should have said she loved him. It wouldn’t have made any difference to him, maybe, but she should have been true to her feelings. Too late now.
Aulis keeps her back straight as she follows the white-clad official. Her preparation room for the quarterfinals is a deluxe separate room with a great view of the devastated planet below. It’s a blotchy purple today. Does that mean anything? She almost asks the official, but he doesn’t look like a person in the know.
As soon as the door closes behind the official she sags and feels the sadness welling up inside her. Whether she wins or loses, the thing with Porwill is going to end. She likes him so much. But either he will hate her for winning, or she will hate him for it. No, that’s not quite right. She doesn’t care about winning or losing. She cares about winning in the right way. No Cobbler alone is going to win this war. They should be practicing to work together as a team, not fighting each other.
But she’s powerless to change the battle testing.
The floor length mirror on the opposite wall records her slump with merciless clarity. It’s as if someone has ripped out the knitting needle from her spine and replaced it with limp yarn.
It shocks Aulis out of her funk. She can’t let go just yet. She forces the knitting needle back into her spine and blinks her eyes hard to will away the tears that threaten. Powerless? Who says she’s powerless? Not her. She’s fucking won every heat up till now. She can show the judges how she knows in her gut this war should be fought. And if she can pull that off, winning the competition will be irrelevant.
The color comes back into her mirror image’s ashen cheeks. She fluffs up her hair, which is still drooping with lack of morning care after their wild night. She tells her body to flush the last traces of hangover and sprays her hair with jasmine hairspray until it stands out from her head like a golden-brown halo. Hair and soul ready for battle.
What is she going to knit? She rummages through her supplies until she feels a softness against her hands she likes. Cashmere mixed with angora. Goat down and rabbit hair, not that these animals still exist. It’s printed, but after that, spun in the old-fashioned way and hand dyed a bubblegum pink. It’s not a workhorse yarn, not what you’d choose if you wanted to knit a sturdy, springy wormhole. But it’s what she wants for today. It’s all metaphor anyway.
She gathers yarn and needles, and squares her shoulders one last time. Her only regret is the plain khaki coveralls she wears, in deference to the space station’s regulations. She would have preferred to show her true colors. The same official leads her out to the battle arena. Every step Aulis takes feels deliberate and heavier than normal. She’s carrying something weighty into the melee, although she doesn’t yet know what.
Section A is empty today. Where are all the military people? You’d think they’d attend the final heats. Aulis doesn’t look at Porwill across the battle stage, although she senses him looking at her. It’s time to concentrate on herself and her craft.
The start signal sounds. Aulis lifts her hands and starts knitting. She’s not thinking about wormholes and structural stability at all, just lets her hands choose what to knit and where to go. She’s half surprised when she turns out something like a cloud, voluminous but weightless, large but soft-edged. She doesn’t pierce space with her needles, but coaxes it to fold and ruffle and bloom.
It’s definitely not becoming a wormhole. More like a fuzzy pink blanket for humanity to hide under.
The end signal sounds. Already? She looks at the score. Yeah, she’s lost, no big surprise there. She starts to turn to Porwill, her hands still in the haptic gloves, ready to congratulate him. But Porwill isn’t there. Nor is the battle room. She’s in light-filled cavern waving with fronds of seaweed, billowing with purple scent tendrils. She can’t breathe. She moans in fear with her mouth shut.
The moans travel out from her as crystalline waveforms, shattering and harming the waving fronds.
People, no, schools of hungry sharks, no, shattered coral, no, clouds of dust have stopped staring at what happens on stage. They can no longer perform the duties of an audience.
The Katabiotics have come. Their presence is destabilizing and altering the very nature of the universe down to every basic constant. Languidly, human cells forget what they are meant to do, neurons falter, lungs stop breathing. Molecules and atoms fall apart, stars stop their fusion, gravity no longer holds anyone down, the center cannot hold.
The person who was Aulis unravels like a worn sweater, one stitch at a time, with only fear remaining.
Where is her knitted blanket? She smells disharmonic lavender explosions, hears chartreuse screaming, feels nettles stinging her tongue. She doesn’t dare look down at her own body to find out how it has changed. There is no time. She needs the blanket. From somewhere she gathers the pink blanket back into visibility and deploys it to shield the waving seaweeds from the aliens’ gorgon stare.
Stars dance in front of her eyes as she wills herself closer to the brown seaweed. The brown becomes lilac and smells like rotten eggs. She touches it with her writhing tentacles and forces Porwill back into existence.
“Team up!” she shouts at him and watches him turn blue and pixelated.
Has she killed him?
No, he’s growing out one of his fronds, spaghetti style, to reach out to that pink dust cloud over there. Aulis recognizes Dorie, she doesn’t know how.
She needs to breathe. What was oxygen like again? She closes her eyes, not stopping to check if she still has any, and imagines pure fresh mountain air streaming into her nostrils, reviving and invigorating her.
The known universe has to come back, she can force it to do her will, if only she keeps observing the building blocks it exists of, as long as she remembers them vividly enough they will be there, again or not again it doesn’t matter. She pulls the tattered sweater of her brain tightly about herself.
She can make sound again. She has ears. Her nose smells green petrichor.
“Dorie, Porwill, the aliens are here! We have to imagine the world back. All of us together!”
The pink blanket, her own shield wall of fluff to protect humanity, weaves around the finalists. They’re all here now. They have to be. They hold hands. Aulis wills them to have hands.
One by one they shiver back into something resembling their original shapes. Close enough. She checks out the audience. There are beings seated on the chair-a-likes that somewhat resemble human beings. They need a bit more work.
“All together now,” Aulis says. “There is still gravity, air, love, humanity, trees, just like always. They have always existed. Evolution as we know it has happened, resulting in us.”
He doesn’t know if he says it out loud but something happens. He can wiggle his toes again. Gravity. He breathes. His hands have five fingers. Large, awkward hands, hard to crochet with. He flexes his ears, that people have always made fun of. What had Dorie looked like before? Not purple. Porwill’s long blonde hair waves in a sudden breeze. Porwill is even more beautiful than before.
It doesn’t matter. They are human. Close enough.
Together the eight Oikotekts cobble the world back together, as best as they can remember.
About the Author
Bo lives and works close to Amsterdam. Bo is the first Dutch author to have been published in F&SF and Clarkesworld. Her fiction has also appeared in Escape Pod, Nature and other places. Her sf novel “The Wan”was published by Pink Narcissus Press. She is a member of SFWA, Codex Writers and a graduate of Viable Paradise.
For more about her work, you can visit her website or find Bo on Facebook.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop, recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award, and a 2019 Kimbilio Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, and Pseudopod. She has narrated short fiction for the Escape Artists podcasts, Uncanny, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her online at stephaniemaliamorris.com or on Twitter at @smaliamorris.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include “Knite” and “Fisheye Placebo” webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature.