Always referring to himself as “we,” a youth named Equality 7-2521 writes in a journal from underground, where he is alone in an abandoned railroad tunnel. He and his friend International 4-8818 discovered the tunnel when they were working as street sweepers behind the theater near the edge of the unnamed city where they live. Equality 7-2521, ignoring International 4-8818’s objections that it is forbidden because the Council has not allowed it, goes down into the tunnel to explore. He concludes that the tunnel must have been built by men during the Unmentionable Times of long ago, and it must therefore be an evil place. Nonetheless, he is drawn to the train tracks that he finds there, and when he reemerges from the hole, he makes International 4-8818 promise not to tell anyone about the hole. International 4-8818, an artist who is strong and funny, is very upset by this idea because it might be forbidden, but out of a sense of loyalty to Equality 7-2521, he agrees, though even the sense of loyalty that he feels upsets him because preference of one person over another is not permitted by the Council.
After he finds the tunnel, Equality 7-2521 returns to it each night by sneaking away from the group home where he lives when the others all go to the theater for the nightly show. He has stolen candles from the Home of the Street Sweepers and manuscripts from the Home of the Scholars. He writes and thinks alone in the tunnel. He acknowledges that his being alone is evil, considering the desire to be alone a part of his curse, but he feels no shame or regret about it. He very much enjoys talking to himself and for his own ears, even though he has been taught that it is evil to do anything for oneself. He knows that if he is discovered he will be punished harshly.
Equality 7-2521 describes his childhood at the Home for Infants, where he lived with all the other boys of his age, in a white room with a hundred beds and nothing else in it. At the age of five, he moved to the Home of the Students, where he lived until he was fifteen. He was a troublesome child because he often fought with the other boys who lived there. His teachers disliked him because he was too smart, and the authorities chastised him because he was taller than the others. He tried to be like the other children, but his curse kept him from achieving normalcy. He especially tried to be like Union 5-3992, a dull and stupid boy in his class. His curse made him curious and pushed him to ask questions, which his teachers eventually forbade.
When he turned fifteen, Equality 7-2521, like all the other boys, was assigned his task for the remainder of his life by the Council of Vocations. Equality 7-2521 desperately wanted to be assigned to the Home of the Scholars, who develop all technology for the society, including the candle, the most recent invention, discovered a century earlier. He wanted to be a scholar more than anything, even more than being a leader, a status considered a great honor in his society, allowing those so assigned to live in the Home of the Leaders, the largest building in the city. Equality 7-2521 sinned by wanting, however, and he was pleased to be able to make restitution for his sin by embracing his assigned profession—street sweeper.
In the tunnel, Equality 7-2521 records in his journal how he had lived at the Home of the Street Sweepers for four years, leading the highly structured life of a street sweeper, when he discovered the tunnel with International 4-8818 and began writing his journal.
Equality 7-2521 is Rand’s prophet, in the sense that he rejects all the collectivism that has come before him and ushers in a new age of individualism. His society rejects him because he is superior to it, both intellectually and physically, and, most important for Rand, in his belief that the self is important. A few are drawn to his superiority, in spite of the masses’ scorn. International 4-8818, though he cannot comprehend why he feels such tremendous loyalty to his friend, is nevertheless compelled to stand by him, in defiance of everything his society has taught him. In this way, International 4-8818 operates as Equality 7-2521’s disciple, following him and believing him, even though he does not understand why he does so. Moreover, we are alerted to the importance of International 4-8818’s devotion through the use of dialogue, a rare occurrence in the novella.