In Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory sci-fi novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Earth’s first Martian colony is a lonesome, hardscrabble place that keeps its handful of occupants under the twin spells of boredom and isolation. The colonists have one means of escape from their living conditions: they chew a psychedelic narcotic called CAN-D and participate in an immersive group virtual reality game called “Perky Pat,” which transforms its players into a handsome, carefree romantic duo living and loving in sunny California. More than mere distraction, the Perky Pat game disorientingly scrambles the distinctions between Earth and Mars, truth and desire, real and unreal.
At ten in the morning a terrific horn, familiar to him, hooted Sam Regan out of his sleep, and he cursed the UN ship upstairs; he knew the racket was deliberate. The ship, circling above the hovel Chicken Pox Prospects, wanted to be certain that colonists–and not merely indigenous animals–got the parcels that were to be dropped.
We’ll get them, Sam Regan muttered to himself as he zipped his insulated overalls, put his feet into high boots, and then grumpily sauntered as slowly as possible toward the ramp.
“He’s early today,” Tod Morris complained. “And I’ll bet it’s all staples, sugar and food-basics like lard–nothing interesting such as, say, candy.”
Putting his shoulders against the lid at the top of the ramp, Norman Schein pushed; bright cold sunlight spilled down on them and they blinked.
The UN ship sparkled overhead, set against the black sky as if hanging from an uneasy thread. Good pilot, this drop, Tod decided. Knows the Fineburg Crescent area. He waved at the UN ship and once more the huge horn burst out its din, making him clap his hands to his ears.
A projectile slid from the underpart of the ship, extended stabilizers, and spiraled toward the ground.
“Sheoot,” Sam Regan said with disgust. “It is staples; they don’t have the parachute.” He turned away, not interested.
How miserable the upstairs looked today, he thought as he surveyed the landscape of Mars. Dreary. Why did we come here? Had to, were forced to.
Already the UN projectile had landed; its hull cracked open, torn by the impact, and the three colonists could see cannisters. It looked to be five hundred pounds of salt. Sam Regan felt even more despondent […]
He himself was a believer; he affirmed the miracle of translation–the near-sacred moment in which the miniature artifacts of the layout no longer merely represented Earth but _became_ Earth. And he and the others, joined together in the fusion of doll inhabitation by means of the Can-D, were transported outside of time and local space.
Many of the colonists were as yet unbelievers; to them the layouts were merely symbols of a world which none of them could any longer experience. But, one by one, the unbelievers came around.
Even now, so early in the morning, he yearned to go back down below, chew a slice of Can-D from his hoard, and join with his fellows in the most solemn moment of which they were capable.
To Tod and Norm Schein he said, “Either of you care to seek transit?” That was the technical term they used for participation. “I’m going back below,” he said. “We can use my Can-D; I’ll share it with you.”
An inducement like that could not be ignored; both Tod and Norm looked tempted. “So early?” Norm Schein said. “We just got out of bed. But I guess there’s nothing to do anyhow.” He kicked glumly at a huge semi-autonomic sand dredge; it had remained parked near the entrance of the hovel for days now. No one had the energy to come up to the surface and resume the clearing operations inaugurated earlier in the month. “It seems wrong, though,” he muttered. “We ought to be up here working in our gardens.”
“And that’s some garden you’ve got,” Sam Regan said, with a grin. “What is that stuff you’ve got growing there? Got a name for it?”
Norm Schein, hands in the pockets of his coveralls, walked over the sandy, loose soil with its sparse vegetation to his once carefully maintained vegetable garden; he paused to look up and down the rows, hopeful that more of the specially prepared seeds had sprouted. None had. […]
Back below, Sam Regan hunted up Fran Schein; he found her crouched at the Perky Pat layout which the Morrises and the Scheins maintained together, intent on what she was doing.
Without looking up, Fran said, “We’ve got Perky Pat all the way downtown in her new Ford hardtop convert and parked and a dime in the meter and she’s shopped and now she’s in the analyst’s office reading _Fortune_. But what does she pay?” She glanced up, smoothed back her long dark hair, and smiled at him. Beyond a doubt Fran was the handsomest and most dramatic person in their collective hovel; he observed this now, and not for anything like the first time.
He said, “How can you fuss with that layout and not chew–” He glanced around; the two of them appeared to be alone. Bending down he said softly to her, “Come on and we’ll chew some first-rate Can-D. Like you and I did before. Okay?” His heart labored as he waited for her to answer; recollections of the last time the two of them had been translated in unison made him feel weak.
“Helen Morris will be–”
“No, they’re cranking up the dredge, above. They won’t be back down for an hour.” He took hold of Fran by the hand, led her to her feet. “What arrives in a plain brown wrapper,” he said as he steered her from the compartment out into the corridor, “should be used, not just buried. It gets old and stale. Loses its potency.” And we pay a lot for that potency, he thought morbidly. Too much to let it go to waste. Although some–not in this hovel-claimed that the power to insure translation did not come from the Can-D but from the accuracy of the layout. To him this was a nonsensical view, and yet it had its adherents.
As they hurriedly entered Sam Regan’s compartment Fran said, “I’ll chew in unison with you, Sam, but let’s not do anything while we’re there on Terra that–you know. We wouldn’t do here. I mean, just because we’re Pat and Walt and not ourselves that doesn’t give us license.” She gave him a warning frown, reproving him for his former conduct and for leading her to that yet unasked.
“Then you admit we really go to Earth.” They had argued this point–and it was cardinal–many times in the past. Fran tended to take the position that the translation was one of appearance only, of what the colonists called _accidents_–the mere outward manifestations of the places and objects involved, not the essences.
“I believe,” Fran said slowly, as she disengaged her fingers from his and stood by the hall door of the compartment, “that whether it’s a play of imagination, of drug-induced hallucination, or an actual translation from Mars to Earth-as-it-was by an agency we know nothing of–” Again she eyed him sternly. “I think we should abstain. In order not to contaminate the experience of communication.” As she watched him carefully remove the metal bed from the wall and reach, with an elongated hook, into the cavity revealed, she said, “It should be a purifying experience. We lose our fleshly bodies, our corporeality, as they say. And put on imperishable bodies instead, for a time anyhow. Or forever, if you believe as some do that it’s outside of time and space, that it’s eternal. Don’t you agree, Sam?” She sighed. “I know you don’t.”
“Spirituality,” he said with disgust as he fished up the packet of Can-D from its cavity beneath the compartment. “A denial of reality, and what do you get instead?
“I admit,” Fran said as she came closer to watch him open the packet, “that I can’t prove you get anything better back, due to abstention. But I do know this. What you and other sensualists among us don’t realize is that when we chew Can-D and leave our bodies _we die_. And by dying we lose the weight of–” She hesitated.
“Say it,” Sam said as he opened the packet; with a knife he cut a strip from the mass of brown, tough, plant-like fibers.
Fran said, “Sin.”
Sam Regan howled with laughter. “Okay–at least you’re orthodox.” Because most colonists would agree with Fran. “But,” he said, redepositing the packet back in its safe place, “that’s not why I chew it; I don’t want to lose anything . . . I want to gain something.” He shut the door of the compartment, then swiftly got out his own Perky Pat layout, spread it on the floor, and put each object in place, working at eager speed. “Something to which we’re not normally entitled,” he added, as if Fran didn’t know.
Her husband–or his wife or both of them or everyone in the entire hovel–could show up while he and Fran were in the state of translation. And their two bodies would be seated at proper distance one from the other; no wrong-doing could be observed, however prurient the observers were. Legally this had been ruled on; no cohabitation could be proved, and legal experts among the ruling UN authorities on Mars and the other colonies had tried–and failed. While translated one could commit incest, murder, anything, and it remained from a juridical standpoint a mere fantasy, an impotent wish only.
This highly interesting fact had long inured him to the use of Can-D; for him life on Mars had few blessings.
“I think,” Fran said, “you’re tempting me to do wrong.” As she seated herself she
looked sad; her eyes, large and dark, fixed futilely on a spot at the center of the layout, near Perky Pat’s enormous wardrobe. Absently, Fran began to fool with a min sable coat, not speaking.
He handed her half of a strip of Can-D, then popped his own portion into his mouth and chewed greedily.
Still looking mournful, Fran also chewed.
He was Walt. He owned a Jaguar XXB sports ship with a fiatout velocity of fifteen thousand miles an hour. His shirts came from Italy and his shoes were made in England. As he opened his eyes he looked for the little G.E. clock TV set by his bed; it would be on automatically, tuned to the morning show of the great newsclown Jim Briskin. In his flaming red wig Briskin was already forming on the screen. Walt sat up, touched a button which swung his bed, altered to support him in a sitting position, and lay back to watch for a moment the program in progress.
“I’m standing here at the corner of Van Ness and Market in downtown San Francisco,” Briskin said pleasantly, “and we’re just about to view the opening of the exciting new subsurface conapt building Sir Francis Drake, the first to be _entirely underground_. With us, to dedicate the building, standing right by me is that enchanting female of ballad and–”
Walt shut off the TV, rose, and walked barefoot to the window; he drew the shades, saw out then onto the warm, sparkling early-morning San Francisco street, the hills and white houses. This was Saturday morning and he did not have to go to his job down in Palo Alto at Ampex Corporation; instead–and this rang nicely in his mind–he had a date with his girl, Pat Christensen, who had a modern little apt over on Potrero Hill.
It was always Saturday.
In the bathroom he splashed his face with water, then squirted on shave cream, and began to shave. And, while he shaved, staring into the mirror at his familiar features, he saw a note tacked up, in his own hand.
THIS IS AN ILLUSION. YOU ARE SAM REGAN, A COLONIST ON MARS. MAKE USE OF YOUR TIME OF TRANSLATION, BUDDY BOY. CALL UP PAT PRONTO!
And the note was signed Sam Regan.
An illusion, he thought, pausing in his shaving. In what way? He tried to think back; Sam Regan and Mars, a dreary colonists’ hovel . . . yes, he could dimly make the image out, but it seemed remote and vitiated and not convincing. Shrugging, he resumed shaving, puzzled, now, and a little depressed. All right, suppose the note was correct; maybe he did remember that other world, that gloomy quasi-life of involuntary expatriation in an unnatural environment. So what? Why did he have to wreck this? Reaching, he yanked down the note, crumpled it and dropped it into the bathroom disposal chute.
As soon as he had finished shaving he vidphoned Pat.
“Listen,” she said at once, cool and crisp; on the screen her blonde hair shimmered: she had been drying it. “I don’t want to see you, Walt. Please. Because I know what you have in mind and I’m just not interested; do you understand?” Her blue-gray eyes were cold.
“Hmm,” he said, shaken, trying to think of an answer. “But it’s a terrific day–we ought to get outdoors. Visit Golden Gate Park, maybe.”
“It’s going to be too hot to go outdoors.”
“No,” he disagreed, nettled. “That’s later. Hey, we could walk along the beach, splash around in the waves. Okay?”
She wavered, visibly. “But that conversation we had just before–”
“There was no conversation. I haven’t seen you in a week, not since last Saturday.”He made his tone as firm and full of conviction as possible. “I’ll drop by your place in half an hour and pick you up. Wear your swimsuit, you know, the yellow one. The Spanish one that has a halter.”
“Oh,” she said disdainfully, “that’s completely out of fash now. I have a new one from Sweden; you haven’t seen it. I’ll wear that, if it’s permitted. The girl at A & F wasn’t sure.”
“It’s a deal,” he said, and rang off.
A half hour later in his Jaguar he landed on the elevated field of her conapt building.
Pat wore a sweater and slacks; the swimsuit, she explained, was on underneath.
Carrying a picnic basket, she followed him up the ramp to his parked ship. Eager and pretty, she hurried ahead of him, pattering along in her sandals. It was all working out as he had hoped; this was going to be a swell day after all, after his initial trepidations had evaporated . . . as thank God they had.
“Wait until you see this swimsuit,” she said as she slid into the parked ship, the
basket on her lap. “It’s really daring; it hardly exists: actually you sort of have to have faith to believe in it.” As he got in beside her she leaned against him. “I’ve been thinking over that conversation we had–let me finish.” She put her fingers against his lips, silencing him. “I know it took place, Walt. But in a way you’re right; in fact basically you have the proper attitude. We should try to obtain as much from this as possible. Our time is short enough as it is . . . at least so it seems to me.” She smiled wanly. “So drive as fast as you can; I want to get to the ocean.”
Almost at once they were setting down in the parking lot at the edge of the beach.
“It’s going to be hotter,” Pat said soberly. “Every day. Isn’t it? Until finally it’s unbearable.” She tugged off her sweater, then, shifting about on the seat of the ship, managed to struggle out of her slacks. “But we won’t live that long. . . it’ll be another fifty years before no one can go outside at noon. Like they say, become mad dogs and
Englishmen; we’re not that yet.” She opened the door and stepped out in her swimsuit.
And she had been correct; it took faith in things unseen to make the suit out at all. It was perfectly satisfactory, to both of them.
Together, he and she plodded along the wet, hardpacked sand, examining jelly fish, shells, and pebbles, the debris tossed up by the waves.
“What year is this?” Pat asked him suddenly, halting. The wind blew her untied hair back; it lifted in a mass of cloudlike yellow, clear and bright and utterly clean, each strand separate.
He said, “Well, I guess it’s–” And then he could not recall; it eluded him. “Damn,” he said crossly.
“Well, it doesn’t matter.” Linking arms with him she trudged on. “Look, there’s that little secluded spot ahead, past those rocks.” She increased her tempo of motion; her body rippled as her strong, taut muscles strained against the wind and the sand and the old, familiar gravity of a world lost long ago. “Am I what’s-her-name–Fran?” she asked
suddenly. She stepped past the rocks; foam and water rolled over her feet, her ankles;
laughing, she leaped, shivered from the sudden chill. “Or am I Patricia Christensen?” With both hands she smoothed her hair. “This is blonde, so I must be Pat. Perky Pat.” She
disappeared beyond the rocks; he quickly followed, scrambling after her. “I used to be
Fran,” she said over her shoulder, “but that doesn’t matter now. I could have been anyone before, Fran or Helen or Mary, and it wouldn’t matter now. Right?”
“No,” he disagreed, catching up with her. Panting, he said, “It’s important that you’re Fran. In essence.”
“In essence.” She threw herself down on the sand, lay resting on her elbow, drawing by means of a sharp black rock in savage swipes which left deeply gouged lines; almost at once she tossed the rock away, and sat around to face the ocean. “But the accidents . . .they’re Pat.” She put her hands beneath her breasts, then, languidly lifting them, a puzzled expression on her face. “These,” she said, “are Pat’s. Not mine. Mine are smaller; I remember.”
He seated himself beside her, saying nothing.
“We’re here,” she said presently, “to do what we can’t do back at the hovel. Back
where we’ve left our corruptible bodies. As long as we keep our layouts in repair this–” She gestured at the ocean, then once more touched herself, unbelievingly. “It can’t decay, can it? We’ve put on immortality.” All at once she lay back, flat against the sand, and shut her eyes, one arm over her face. “And since we’re here, and we can do things denied us at the hovel, then your theory is we _ought_ to do those things. We ought to take advantage of the opportunity.”
He leaned over her, bent and kissed her on the mouth.
Inside his mind a voice thought, “But I can do this any time.” And, in the limbs of
his body, an alien mastery asserted itself; he sat back, away from the girl. “After all,” Norm Schein thought, “I’m married to her.” He laughed, then.
“Who said you could use my layout?” Sam Regan thought angrily. “Get out of my
compartment. And I bet it’s my Can-D, too.”
“You offered it to us,” the co-inhabitant of his mindbody answered. “So I decided to take you up on it.”
“I’m here, too,” Tod Morris thought. “And if you want my opinion–”
“Nobody asked you for yours,” Norm Schein thought angrily. “In fact nobody asked you to come along; why don’t you go back up and mess with that rundown no-good garden of yours, where you ought to be?”
Tod Morris thought calmly, “I’m with Sam. I don’t get a chance to do this, except here.” The power of his will combined with Sam’s; once more Walt bent over the reclining girl; once again he kissed her on the mouth, and this time heavily, with increased agitation.
Without opening her eyes Pat said in a low voice, “I’m here, too. This is Helen.” She added, “And also Mary. But we’re not using your supply of Can-D, Sam; we brought some we had already.” She put her arms around him as the three inhabitants of Perky Pat joined in unison in one endeavor. Taken by surprise, Sam Regan broke contact with Tod Morris; he joined the effort of Norm Schein, and Walt sat back away from Perky Pat.
The waves of the ocean lapped at the two of them as they silently reclined together on the beach, two figures comprising the essences of six persons. Two in six, Sam Regan thought. The mystery repeated; how is it accomplished? The old question again. But all I care about, he thought, is whether they’re using up my Can-D. And I bet they are; I don’t care what they say: I don’t believe them.
Rising to her feet Perky Pat said, “Well, I can see I might just as well go for a swim; nothing’s doing here.” She padded into the water, splashed away from them as they sat in their body, watching her go.
“We missed our chance,” Tod Morris thought wryly.
“My fault,” Sam admitted. By joining, he and Tod managed to stand; they walked a few steps after the girl and then, ankle-deep in the water, halted.
Already Sam Regan could feel the power of the drug wearing off; he felt weak and afraid and bitterly sickened at the realization. So goddamn soon, he said to himself. All over; back to the hovel, to the pit in which we twist and cringe like worms in a paper bag, huddled away from the daylight. Pale and white and awful. He shuddered.–Shuddered, and saw, once more, his compartment with its tinny bed, washstand,desk, kitchen stove . . . and, in slumped, inert heaps, the empty husks of Tod and Helen
Morris, Fran and Norm Schein, his own wife Mary; their eyes stared emptily and he looked away, appalled.
On the floor between them was his layout; he looked down and saw the dolls, Walt and Pat, placed at the edge of the ocean, near the parked Jaguar. Sure enough, Perky Pat had on the near-invisible Swedish swimsuit, and next to them reposed a tiny picnic basket.
And, by the layout, a plain brown wrapper that had contained Can-D; the five of them had chewed it out of existence, and even now as he looked–against his will– he saw a thin trickle of shiny brown syrup emerge from each of their slack, will-less mouths.
Across from him Fran Schein stirred, opened her eyes, moaned; she focused on him, then wearily sighed.
“They got to us,” he said.
“We took too long.” She rose unsteadily, stumbled, and almost fell; at once he was up, too, catching hold of her. “You were right; we should have done it right away if we intended to. But–” She let him hold her, briefly. “I like the preliminaries. Walking along the beach, showing you the swimsuit that is no swimsuit.” She smiled a little.
Sam said, “They’ll be out for a few more minutes, I bet.”
Wide-eyed, Fran said, “Yes, you’re right.” She skipped away from him, to the door; tugging it open, she disappeared out into the hall. “In our compartment,” she called back. “Hurry!
Pleased, he followed. It was too amusing; he was convulsed with laughter. Ahead of him the girl scampered up the ramp to her level of the hovel; he gained on her, caught hold of her as they reached her compartment. Together they tumbled in, rolled giggling and struggling across the hard metal floor to bump against the far wall.
We won after all, he thought as he deftly unhooked her bra, began to unbutton her shirt, unzipped her skirt, and removed her laceless slipperlike shoes in one swift operation; he was busy everywhere and Fran sighed, this time not wearily.
“I better lock the door.” He rose, hurried to the door and shut it, fastening it securely. Fran, meanwhile, struggled out of her undone clothes.
“Come back,” she urged. “Don’t just watch.” She piled them in a hasty heap, shoes on top like two paperweights.
He descended back to her side and her swift, clever fingers began on him; dark eyes alit she worked away, to his delight.
And right here in their dreary abode on Mars. And yet–they had still managed it in the old way, the sole way: through the drug brought in by the furtive pushers. Can-D had made this possible; they continued to require it. In no way were they free.
As Fran’s knees clasped his bare sides he thought, and in no way do we want to be. In fact just the opposite. As his hand traveled down her flat, quaking stomach he thought, We could even use a little more.
Excerpt from Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, 1965.