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By candlelight, a 21-year-old Street Sweeper named Equality 7-2521 writes in his journal as he sits alone in a disused railway tunnel. Thinking for one’s self has been outlawed in his collectivist society, and he always refers to himself using the pronoun “we.” Equality 7-2521 is tall, strong, and intellectually curious—all qualities that set him apart from his peers, and thus he considers these qualities a “curse.” He spent his childhood education hoping to be assigned to work at the Home of the Scholars. However, he is assigned the insulting job of Street Sweeper. One day, while sweeping streets, Equality 7-2521 finds an entrance to a tunnel left over from the Unmentionable Times. From this day forward, Equality 7-2521 sneaks away from the mandatory entertainment each night in order to spend time alone in the tunnel. There, he reads stolen manuscripts and uses stolen tools to conduct experiments.

Equality 7-2521 is enamored of a girl named Liberty 5-3000 who works in the Home of the Peasants. Whenever he sweeps near her field, they discreetly indicate their affection for one another. Equality 7-2521 gives Liberty 5-300 the name, “the Golden One.” One day, Equality 7-2521 tells the Golden One of his special attraction to her. In the days following this encounter, Equality 7-2521’s joyfulness distinguishes him from his miserable peers. One night, Equality 7-2521 recalls a childhood memory of watching a Transgressor of the Unspoken Word being publicly burned at the stake. He remembers the sinner’s courage and poise, reminiscent of a proud saint.

Working in his tunnel, Equality 7-2521 discovers that metal conducts electricity. He believes that men harnessed this power in the Unmentionable Times. Some time later, Equality 7-2521 reencounters the Golden One. He drinks water from her cupped hands, and they are both struck by the powerful emotions they feel afterwards. Equality 7-2521 uses his new knowledge to create a light bulb. He sees its usefulness for mankind and decides he will present it to the World Council of Scholars when they meet in his City. Caught up in his success, Equality 7-2521 forgets to return to the City Theatre on time. He is tortured, but refuses to disclose where he has spent time alone. Equality 7-2521 is then imprisoned, but escapes the day before the World Council of Scholars is due to meet. He prepares his invention to present to the Council, confident that they will appreciate his accomplishment even if it arose out of sinfulness.

However, Equality 7-2521’s presentation before the World Council of Scholars does not got well. The Scholars fear his invention and resent that Equality 7-2521 acted alone. They vow to punish him and destroy his invention for violating the principles of collectivism. Equality 7-2521 curses the Scholars and escapes through a window, cradling his invention in his arms. He runs to the Uncharted Forest, and after a day, he is charmed by his newfound solitary life. The next day, Equality 7-2521 discovers that the Golden One has followed him into the forest after hearing of his escape from the City. She promises her devotion to him and the two walk together for days. Equality 7-2521 ponders how this solitude could possibly be a corrupting force.

Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One find a house in the mountains, abandoned since the Unmentionable Times. Inside, they find artifacts like mirrors and manuscripts. That night, Equality 7-2521 stays up reading the texts and discovers the unspeakable word: “I.” Now writing in first-person, he concludes that his own happiness is the only purpose of his life. From his readings, Equality 7-2521 chooses a new name for himself: Prometheus, after the Greek mythological figure who stole fire from the Gods to give to humans. He gives the Golden One the name Gaea. In time, Gaea becomes pregnant, and Prometheus explains that he will begin a new society of egotists, recruiting new members from his former City. The worship of the word “we,” he realizes, is the reason that the accomplishments of the Unmentionable Times were undone by the collectivists. He recognizes the heroic struggle of people like the Transgressor of the Unspeakable Word and vows to continue their mission.