John Isidore goes down the stairs of his deserted apartment building to the floor below, where he hears the voice of Buster Friendly playing loudly on a TV behind one of the doors. He knocks on the door and can sense that someone is inside but is afraid to answer. John tells the person that he's brought a cube of margarine for them, that his name is J.R. Isidore, and that he's a truck driver for the veterinarian Hannibal Sloat.
Although idea of someone else living in the apartment building that John assumed was abandoned is likely a red flag for the reader—anyone could be behind the door—John unhesitatingly approaches this person. His offering of a margarine cube and eagerness to introduce himself to this stranger demonstrates how genuinely empathetic John is, even at a potential detriment to himself.
A frail girl timidly opens the door, so afraid that she appears physically sick and almost deformed. She tries to smile at John, who realizes that the girl must have thought she was living in an abandoned building. The girl confirms that this is true. John tries to reason with her that it's good to have neighbors. The girl asks if John is the only other person who lives in the building. John notices that she is attractive, that she is wearing nothing but pajama bottoms, and that her room is in disarray since she's just moved in. He tells her that he is, indeed, the only one in the building besides her, and promises not to bother her.
Again, though John has been living alone for a long time, it's clear that he has retained his ability to connect and empathize with others, as he quickly picks up on the girl's fear and discomfort at having her presumed solitude interrupted by a stranger. The girl's strange appearance and strained smile, meanwhile, is a subtle signal to the reader that she may have something to hide—perhaps that she is not a fellow human.
The girl doesn't acknowledge John's promise, which saddens him. He thinks that perhaps she doesn't understand why he brought the cube of margarine and reasons that the girl seems confused and afraid. Trying to get the girl to open up, John asks if she likes Buster, whom he used to watch every morning and night before his own TV broke. The girl doesn't know who Buster Friendly—a well-known TV comic—is, which prompts John to ask her where she came from.
John's empathy is further highlighted here, as he effortlessly puts himself in the girl's shoes and reasons that she is confused and scared. The girl's ignorance of Buster Friendly once again signals for the reader that she may not be human—after all, TV is an omnipresent part of their society and people generally all conform to liking and wanting the same things.
The girl refuses to answer John and tells him that she'll be unable to have company over until she's settled in. John, confused, thinks that maybe he's become a strange "chickenhead" after living alone for so long. He offers to help the girl unpack, but she says that the things in the apartment were already there when she arrived. Looking at the rotted, ruinous state of the room behind the girl, John offers to help her go around to the other units and find better furnishings. The girl says that she can do this on her own.
The girl clearly doesn't want John around, but it's likely that his relatively low IQ prevents him from picking up on this and taking the hint—despite his capacity for empathy, he seems to have trouble understanding certain social situations. Meanwhile, his worry that he is a "chickenhead" (a derogatory term for "specials" like John) suggests that he is aware of himself and his shortcomings, and worries that they are a barrier between himself and other people.
John cautions the girl that all of the abandoned apartments are overrun with the possessions of people who used to live there—the entire building has been "kipple-ized." "Kipple," he explains, is clutter like junk mail or gum wrappers that seem to multiply on their own. According to the "First Law of Kipple," John says, kipple drives out everything else, and there has been no one in the apartments to prevent this from happening. The girl nods, understanding what he means. John tells her that the apartment she's picked is "too kipple-ized" to be habitable, and that no one can win against kipple. People can create a delicate state of equilibrium between kipple and order, but universe's natural tendency is to move toward a state of "absolute kippleization"—except, that is, for "the upward climb of Wilbur Mercer."
John's explanation of kipple plays into the novel's critique of humanity's relationship with our environment. Whereas humans in the novel alternate between revering the natural world and wanting to dominate their surroundings, the process of kippleization (similar to the scientific concept of entropy) suggests that people's environment ultimately has more control over them than vice-versa.
At this, the girl says that she doesn't see the connection between kippleization and Mercer. John, puzzled by the girl once more, counters that she's missing the whole idea of Mercerism—doesn't she take part in fusion or own an empathy box? The girl admits that she didn't bring her empathy box with her, having assumed she would find one in the apartment building. This excites John, who incredulously exclaims that one's empathy box is one's most personal possession—it is an extension of an individual that connects them to others. "Mercer even lets people like me—" he begins to say, but stops when he notices the girl's sudden look of disapproval. John sheepishly tells her that he nearly passed the IQ test but that he's not particularly special, although Mercer doesn't care about this.
To the reader, it's clear that the girl probably never had an empathy box and is just trying to placate John. The girl's aversion toward Mercerism implies that she may not be able to connect with the tenants of the religion, perhaps because she lacks the profound capacity for empathy that John has exhibited. Whether or not the girl is human still remains unclear, since androids can so effectively blend in amongst people.
The girl neutrally states that she sees this as an objection to Mercerism. John tells her that he'll go back upstairs now, but she stops him and takes him up on his earlier offer of helping her find furniture for her apartment. John can help her after he gets home from work, she says. John asks the girl if she'll cook them dinner if he brings ingredients, but she curtly replies that she has too much to do and that they can have dinner another time. John notices that the girl's former fear is gone and that she now seems cold and unfeeling.
The emphasis on the girl's "neutral" manner of speech, straightforward critique of Mercerism, and cold response to John once again subtly hint that she may not be human. It's unclear at this point whether she's genuinely interested in spending time with John or if she merely wants something from him.
Before John leaves, he again tells the girl his name and begins to repeat the introduction he already gave her. Interrupting him, the girl introduces herself as Rachael Rosen. John asks if this means she is related to the Rosen Association, "the system's largest manufacturer of humanoid robots used in our colonization program[.]" A strange expression comes over Rachael's face, but it quickly dissipates and she denies knowing anything about the Rosen Association. She mocks John's "chickenhead imagination" and empathy box. When John begins to protest, she tells him to call her by her married name, Pris Stratton, because she never goes by anything else. Changing her mind, Pris decides that John should call her Miss Stratton instead, since they hardly know each other. She shuts the door, leaving John alone in the dingy hallway.
Given that the reader already knows Rachael Rosen is an android, it's clear that the girl isn't human. What's unclear at this point is whether this being is Rachael Rosen, Pris Stratton, or both—regardless, John seems unaware that the girl isn't a person like him. This invokes one of the most complex questions of the novel: if an android passes as a human being, does this effectively make them human?