amelia beamer

Krishnaware

by Amelia Beamer
(originally appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #20)

“So great was Radha’s love for Krishna that even today her name is uttered whenever Krishna is referred to, and Krishna worship is thought to be incomplete without the deification of Radha.” —Madhuri Guin

Radha is aware first of the sun on her face and fabric on her skin. Her hands are wrapped around a mug of ginger tea; she can smell it. Next, a girl’s high chatter with the vibrato of bumblebees. Radha’s vision finally boots, and she can see she has picked up at the second chapter of Krishnaware, the third scene, in the café with the other gopi. Waiting for Krishna.

This time the transition isn’t as bad. This time she can breathe. Radha shrugs, and the last whispers of her daily life dissolve, programming deadlines and impersonal apartment walls replaced by the fine tang of dust yellows and the wide, wet blues of India. She is Radha here, and Radha is awake.

Radha’s companion babbles on, not noticing how Radha grips the cup as her nausea lifts. The gopi girl is talking about how beautiful Krishna is, how she wants to have her turn, she’d like to have his undivided attention for even a minute. She bites her lip and turns her face away, thinking about it. Radha takes advantage of the pause. Once this was a game. Now it feels too real.

“Do you love him?” Radha asks. She is not unkind.

“Of course,” the bubbly girl answers, pulling her veil away from the breeze and over her smile. “We all do.”

Radha smiles back, but it is fake. She leans forward as if to say something important, but then only nods in agreement. “Of course we all do.”

Krishna enters the café patio then, pretending not to hear them. Radha is facing away from him, but she knows he’s there. She knows he’s wearing the white dhoti, carrying his flute, and smiling impishly, because this is what Krishna always does at this point in the story. The other girl, as she always does, seems to remember something terribly important that requires her attention. She stands and raises her hand to wave to her god, then turns and scampers off to a group of girls. They look to Radha’s still-clearing vision as if they were made of teeth and fabric and sunlight.

Radha feels Krishna approach, inhales Krishna’s smell of men and animals to push Christina, that other self in the apartment, away.

“Kisliye Radha jale?” he asks, cocking his head towards the girls. She has turned the translator off; she has already heard everything Krishna says at this part. C’mon. Are you jealous? His dark eyes and white teeth shine.

Radha stops herself from saying no. She leans back in her chair, drinking in his presence. The sky is too bright, the colors are too vivid. But she knows that she will adjust.

“Radha kaise na jale,” she says instead. How can I not be jealous? She smiles sweet and bitter, like an unripe peach.

Krishna sits across from her at the table, leaning in a bit closer than necessary. He runs a finger along her jaw. She tingles after his warm touch.

“You know how I feel about you. You don’t have to worry about those other girls. So what if they like me? You’re the only one I care about.” His voice is deep, and Radha wants to believe the huskiness is emotion.

“Will you never say the words?” she asks. Her voice is soft, that of someone in mourning.

“Love doesn’t work that way. You know it when you look at me. I don’t care about anything else, even death,” Krishna says.

Radha is the mortal in love with the god. She meets his eyes, remembers to breathe.

Krishna is gorgeous. He looks straight at Radha, and she pulls her veil over her mouth.

What’s bothering her isn’t really the other gopi; after as much time as she’s spent in Krishnaware, she knows this. The girls stretch in the sun, hoping for his attention. Radha has not forgotten that she used to be one of them. She looks at them a second too long and triggers an audio prompt.

“Gopi are the girls that follow Krishna.”

Radha tries to ignore this. Disabling the infodump protocol might tip the admin off to her other hacks.

She can hear their bird voices giggling. In the scripture they were milkmaids; now they are waitresses and bank tellers. Radha doesn’t work as a milkmaid or a waitress anymore, though she has vague memories of singing and cows. There are many stories of Krishna and his followers, Radha thinks. Including this one.

“How am I supposed to feel?” Radha says. Krishna leans forward and kisses her, then moves away just as quickly. Radha can’t help tasting her lips, closing her eyes.

When she looks at Krishna again, he is leaning back on the chair, grinning at the girls. The girls grasp each other’s hands tightly, brown-black eyes glinting like sunlight on snakeskin.

The behavior protocol prompt goes off again. “Radha symbolizes all of the gopi girls’ love for Krishna.” Radha doesn’t want this guided tourist experience. She wants Krishna for herself. Normally she plugs in for a few hours’ subjective experience—with REM Tech those hours only cost a few minutes in that other life. This is how she lives two lives. But Radha is ready to give up that other life, to stay with Krishna. She’s ready this time, and the thought makes her giddy. She has planned everything.

Krishna looks back at Radha. He shakes his black hair out of his eyes and shrugs as if to say, “This is who I am.” Radha’s husband has not left her yet, nor has Krishna’s wife left him. This is why she and Krishna shouldn’t be together. Or maybe why they are together.

Krishna pulls his flute from his pocket. It, too, glints in the sun. He plays a few notes of a walking song, brisk and steady. He kisses Radha again, this time on the cheek, then leaves for work. Radha turns to watch him go.

“Radha’s passion for Krishna serves as a symbol of longing for the ultimate unification with God,” the prompt says. It reminds Radha of sex with Krishna. He’s always been a bit sloppy, one of those boys who can get by on looks alone. It frustrates Radha, but she stays with Krishna, waiting. She knows that unification is an event in time, and that Radha is supposed to embody eternal wishing. Radha knows that unfulfilled passions are far sexier, and this is why she waits for Krishna.

Krishna doesn’t herd cows anymore. He writes software. He herds bits of data. He is gentle, and even gods need jobs. Krishna keeps a long string of them, like misshapen beads. In this chapter of Krishnaware, he is in middle management. In this chapter, Radha works at the same company, but today is her day off. Some months ago, in a different chapter, she asked to be moved to another department. She works with clients now, people looking for a Religious Experience. Or is that Christina’s job, Radha wonders. Sometimes it is hard for Radha to remember who she is; her memories curl and mingle like smoke from neighboring fires.

Radha wraps her hands around her cooling tea, ginger over the curry and cumin drifting from the next shop. She thinks about how she can have Krishna to herself. There will always be pretty gopi, other girls to distract him. There will always be Christina, waiting and jealous. Radha is ready to move beyond this experience. She had two problems. Now she has one plan: she has hacked herself into Krishnaware, turned off the safeties. Two or three of Christina’s days will give Radha time to live; time enough to die happy. Her plan is this: she will steal Krishna.

Radha has five ideas for stealing Krishna. Five like the buttons on Christina’s console, one for each finger. She fishes a piece of paper from her pocket, unfolds it on the table, and writes her five options again. These are the options the game will allow, after the hacking she has done.

Option #1: Clone him. This way, Radha thinks, she can make him say he loves her. She would prefer to carry the zygote to term herself, even though it is more expensive. She wouldn’t need his permission on the gray market.

Option #2: Murder-Suicide. Even gods can die. You get to know these things when you know Krishna as well as Radha knows Krishna. Sometimes Krishna frustrates her so very much, and she can’t change the way he is. She can only wait for him. This option is not so pretty. This is a bad option. She knows that this is not a real option.

Option #3: Get over Krishna. She likes this option least, but she writes it anyway. Her husband has his own apartment now, his own life. Radha never liked him all that much. She is devoted to Krishna. This won’t change. Radha draws a black line through this option.

Option #4: Take a trip together. This would have to be far away from civilization. She is thinking beyond the solar system, or the new tourist hotel under the ocean. She might like to see the buggy-eyed, fanged fish. This would be an extended arrangement. It might be enough.

Option #5: Do Nothing. Nothing different, anyway. This is always an option, in any situation, and usually the option people like the least. This is the option she decides every day. This, too, isn’t a real option. She writes it down anyway, then crosses it off twice.

Radha waits for Krishna. She waited through his silly dragonslaying, his other wives and families. Krishna always returns to Radha. Radha is always waiting, changing like the weather.

Radha knows in some part of her mind that all the options will be chosen by other versions of Radha. Knowledge of this does not bother her too much. She picks an option for herself. She chooses the best option.

Radha and Krishna board the craft. It is a two-person resort shuttle. Radha has paid money, given notice to her work, programmed their destination. The details are sharp; everything seems so unreal when you leave one life for another. The ship rises and falls while they sleep, everything on autopilot. Radha wakes once and looks out the single window. She thinks she sees Saturn. She sighs in anticipation, then realizes that she has already arrived. Radha settles down again on the small cot and wraps her arms and legs around Krishna. He must know of her plan, her selfish plan, but he says nothing. He sleeps with his mouth open, legs twitching.

Later, as if in a dream, Radha feels the ship land, wonderfully far from everywhere, from everyone. She slips out from under Krishna’s sleep-heavy arm. She goes to the control panels, long brown fingers finding and rubbing out the little computer brains. She leaves life support, lights, little else. This is her favorite hack, the hack that makes it possible to disable the ship, strand them together. It will be a long time before Krishnaware’s automatic shut-off kicks in, a long time before anyone finds them.

When Krishna wakes, Radha explains the situation, leaving out the part about how she caused it. Krishna curses. He stands, then sits, moving around the cabin.

“I thought it would be different with you,” he says. He is tender, even when angry. “You were stronger than this. Better.”

So he knew. Radha says nothing. She won’t let him hurt her, not now.

“I’ll reboot; won’t lose much, but you, you stupid girl.”

“Stop.” Radha cuts him off. They don’t discuss her life outside the game; his life inside when she isn’t in the ’ware.

Krishna’s gaze moves over Radha’s frame, as if her motives were spelled out in the shape of her knees, the length of her forearms. He shrugs, admitting his complicity.

“You’re sure there’s only that foil-wrapped shit to eat?” He grimaces towards the emergency rations. Even gods like to eat.

“And plenty of it,” Radha says. She doesn’t giggle, but she is smiling. It’s not as if they need to eat.

Radha squeezes Krishna’s hands, then picks up his flute from the bed. He accepts it, and plays a few notes. A new song. Radha pushes gently on his shoulders, and Krishna sits cross-legged on the floor. The song he plays is slow, melancholy, and tender. Radha opens his dhoti, raises her skirt, and makes love to him while he plays. The sex is better. She is happier now than she can ever remember.

This Radha spends her days locked into Krishna. If she remembers that her name was once Christina, when she first plugged into Krishnaware, it isn’t important anymore. Radha entwines her arms around her Krishna.

This Radha has chosen her outcome, which is different from an option. In this ultimate unification with God, Radha forgets about her other self, the slumped body in its lonely apartment. Only a casing now, it fires neurons and excites nanos in Krishnaware, and Radha lives.

After a while, Krishna forgives her. He starts playing happy songs again, along with the sad and the sexy ones.

Krishna and Radha sit across from one another at the small table, or Radha sits on Krishna, or they lie in the small bed. The flute is between them, and when they finish talking, or eating, or sleeping, Krishna raises the flute to his lips. It is not the same tune as the one the rat catcher plays.

At the end of all of the Krishna stories, the god Krishna and the mortal Radha wander off together into the woods. Or maybe it is the desert.

δ

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