Both the U.S. and Communist governments are threatened by the rise of Mercerism, a proto-religion formed around a man of unknown origin named Wilbur Mercer. Followers of Mercer watch him on a television screen and by grasping the handles on a black empathy box are able to feel the suffering Mercer feels as he walks through a desert on the way to his death.
Everything else about Mercer is a mystery, but the State Department suspects he is an extraterrestrial connected somehow to jazz harpist Ray Meritan. In cahoots with the Chinese Communists they send Meritan’s mistress Joan Hiashi to Cuba under a ruse hoping she will connect Meritan to Mercer.
While performing on a live TV broadcast Meritan exposes himself as a follower of Mercer, Joan is arrested in Cuba as a political agitator and all empathy boxes are rounded up and destroyed. Meritan avoids getting captured and finds one last remaining empathy box. When he grabs the handles he is connected telepathically to Bogart Crofts of the State Department who had been holding onto the empathy box at the same time. The state department knows then that Meritan is not Mercer but intend to arrest him anyway. Mercerism is illegal and with all the empathy boxes destroyed they are confident the religion will be eradicated.
The state department releases Joan as bait to find out where Meritan is. When Meritan meets up with Joan they expect a hard time staying one step in front of the government, but help comes from a strange peddler who surreptitiously passes them instructions on how to assemble an empathy box out of ordinary household objects.
The Mercerism religion makes an appearance later in Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Cast of characters
- Bogart Crofts – works for the State Department
- Joan Hiashi – Asian scholar in Zen Buddhism. Joan Hiashi is also in The Ganymede Takeover
- Ray Meritan – a telepath and jazz harpist suspected by the State Department to be Wilbur Mercer
- Douglas Herrick – Secretary of State
- Mr. Lee – a Chinese telepath