Spoiler alert: this won't be answered until Part 3, which is hundreds of pages from now. So buckle in for a long (and wacky) ride, boys and girls.
Eddie Willers is walking down the street when he hears this question. It is sunset, and Eddie has a sense of dread and doom. Doom!
The man who asked the book's favorite question is a bum. Eddie gives him some change.
We learn that bums are really common in the city. Sounds like the economy sucks.
The bum asks Eddie why the John Galt question bothers him, and Eddie tells him to go away.
Eddie ponders his weird sense of dread and doom; he can't remember when it started. Eddie is 32.
The city looks like it's dying in the twilight, but Eddie quickly dismisses that thought and decides that he's being morbid. Doom!
There's a gigantic calendar on top of one of the buildings, which adds to the doom of the scene, for Eddie at least. The date is September 2.
Eddie reaches Fifth Avenue, which tells us that he's in New York. He's relieved to be on a busy street with signs of life.
Childhood flashback time! Eddie remembers how he used to spend his summers on the Taggart estate with the Taggart kids. Both Grandpa and Papa Willers worked for the Taggarts.
One summer, when Eddie was seven, a lightning bolt struck this strong oak tree that Eddie loved and it completely wrecked his sense of security. Eddie isn't quite sure why seeing the tree broken in half was so traumatic, or why he still remembers it.
Eddie decides to think about positive childhood memories instead, and recalls a summer when he was ten. He was talking with his childhood BFF, who was telling him about the business she would start when she grew up. Eddie said he would do something great with her someday, not just run a business. The girl ignored the dig against business and looked off at a railroad track.
Poor Eddie doesn't understand why the world is so screwed up and why people have problems doing the right thing.
Eddie arrives at the big and impressive Taggart Transcontinental building. Taggart Transcontinental is a railroad company, and Eddie works at its headquarters.
Taggart Transcontinental's slogan is "From Ocean to Ocean." Eddie mentally adds "forever" to the end of the slogan, which he thinks makes it sound even more majestic.
Eddie goes to have a meeting with James Taggart, the president of the railroad.
James is 39, has bad posture, is pale and flabby, and looks tired. It seems that we're not supposed to like him.
Then James is rude to Eddie, who seems nice thus far.
Eddie stalls and glances at a map in James's office. He checks out the Rio Norte line and quickly stops looking at it once he reaches El Paso. Does Eddie have it in for Mexico? Is he haunted by some bad Spring Break memories? We shall see.
Actually, Eddie has a problem with the Rio Norte line because it's a piece of junk and losing money. There was another wreck on it just today.
James, whom Eddie calls Jim, doesn't want to hear about it.
Eddie insists that they need to do something about the Rio Norte Line because it's a piece of junk. The guy who was supposed to deliver steel for a new track, Orren Boyle, is late yet again. (If Orren Boyle were around today, he'd be set as a TV journalist, with a name like that.)
James talks in circles around the issue and tells Eddie that he'd better not bring up Rearden Steel. James sounds like he can't even decide what to order for lunch, much less hurt Eddie, so Eddie is probably safe saying whatever he wants.
Jimmy whines about how none of this is his fault, how Orren is his BFF and he can't take his business elsewhere (even though Orren sounds totally incompetent), then gripes about the Phoenix-Durango line. Phoenix Durango sounds super old Westerney and fun. Maybe it's one of those dinner-theater trains where they stage fake train robberies and have all the staff dress up like cowboys.
Actually, Phoenix-Durango is a super good railroad that is kicking Taggart Transcontinental's ass.
Eddie points out that Phoenix-Durango is a great line and they are losing business to them, like the Ellis Wyatt oil fields.
James hates Ellis Wyatt.
We learn that Ellis Wyatt is a genius who managed to start up super successful oil fields in Colorado, which is apparently the new industrial hub of America.
James complains some more about how people used to be satisfied with Taggart Transcontinental, and these new people and companies are just messing everything up.
Eddie wonders where James went to business school. Maybe he missed the lecture on the Facts of Life: Competition and Change. Eddie tells James to quit whining about the good old days and do something productive.
Instead, James whines some more and says it's not his fault the competition is creaming them.
James then accuses Eddie of being a feudal serf to the Taggarts, and Eddie is like, that still doesn't fix the railroad, fool.
Subject change again: James insists that the San Sebastián Mines in Mexico are going to make them tons of money.
Eddie starts to point out that James's sister disagrees, but James cuts him off.
Finally Eddie gives up and leaves.
He finds everyone getting ready to go home except the chief clerk, Pop Harper, who is fixing his own typewriter. Pop says that everything is falling apart and that when his typewriter breaks down for good he won't be able to get a new one. He finishes his spiel by asking, "Who is John Galt?" Doom!
We break to a new scene. An attractive young woman is riding on a train, in a compartment by herself. She's listening to some music and trying to relax.
The music reminds her of her favorite composer, Richard Halley, but she knows all his work and doesn't recognize this song.
This jolts her out of her daze, and she realizes that she's hearing someone whistling.
She goes to ask the person whistling to name the tune, and he says it's Halley's Fifth Concerto.
The woman says he only wrote four, and the guy quickly says he made a mistake.
The woman won't let it go, though, and continues to question him about it. (If there's a Halley concerto she doesn't know about, she'll have to resign as president of the Richard Halley Fan Club.)
Finally the woman gives up and goes back to her car. She lets the sound of the train wheels lull her to sleep and wakes up to discover that the train has stopped.
She gets off and finds the workers running the train just standing around next to a red signal light.
She asks them what's up and they say that the signal light is broken and they're waiting for it to change to green.
The woman thinks this is stupid and says so. The workers say they won't risk their jobs by running a red light. They have to wait for orders or for someone to come to fix it.
The woman tells them to do something, since this train is the Comet, and it's never been late.
One of the men just asks who John Galt is. (We sense a theme there.)
Now the woman snaps out orders to them, and they ask who died and made her queen.
Turns out she is queen, though, at least of this railroad. This is Dagny Taggart, James's sister, Eddie's BFF, and the VP of Taggart Transcontinental.
The men are duly impressed and scramble to obey her orders.
As she walks off, one of the men asks who Dagny is, and another guy tells him that she's the Vice President of Operations and the person who actually runs the whole railroad.
Dagny is still anxious even when the train starts moving again. She thinks everything is falling apart.
She gets back to work and thinks about how she needs to fire the loser running their Ohio Division (whom James hired) and replace him with a cool guy named Owen Kellogg. She thinks that good men are getting harder and harder to find.
Later the Comet pulls into Taggart Transcontinental station in New York. Dagny is thrilled to be back home and gets off the train whistling Halley's Fifth Concerto.
Then she notices the young man who was whistling it before staring at her. Doom!
We break to a new scene: Dagny is meeting with James and Eddie, who we now learn is Dagny's assistant.
Dagny has been away on a business trip. She tells James that she'll save the Rio Norte line even though it's a piece of junk, and that she's already ordered the steel for it from Rearden Steel.
James is appalled, but when Dagny tells him to call Rearden and cancel the order, he quickly backpedals.
Dagny says that Rearden is faster and cheaper than Orren Boyle, who is a loser. She's cancelled their contract with Boyle.
James tries to argue that he doesn't like Henry Rearden personally, and Dagny says that has nothing to do with saving a railroad.
She then drops another bombshell: she didn't actually order steel, she ordered Rearden Metal, which is some sort of new metal alloy that is super awesome.
Rearden Metal just hit the market, and so far Dagny is its only customer.
James is even more freaked out by this because change is bad. Doom!
Dagny says that she's a freaking engineer (college degree and everything). She has studied Rearden Metal and thinks it's super cool, so James can stuff it.
James just complains some more about change and hypercompetitive businesspeople.
Then they discuss the situation in Mexico. The Rio Norte Line is called the San Sebastián Line south of the border. Dagny says that Mexico is going to nationalize it soon, which means the government will own it and the Taggarts will lose a ton of money.
James gets even more freaked out by this prospect and reacts by essentially putting his fingers in his ears and loudly yelling "la la la."
Dagny gets them back on the subject of the awesomeness of Rearden Metal.
James thinks that Dagny is too cold and practical – she freaks him out.
Dagny rambles on about Hank Rearden. James says she should call him Henry. Among his other attributes, James is apparently a stick-in-the-mud too.
Finally Dagny tells her brother to just say yes or no to Rearden Metal.
He tells her to go ahead but makes it clear that she's taking responsibility for the whole thing.
James's parting shot is to tell Dagny that she isn't human and has no feelings. Dagny is the Final Cylon! Oh wait. Dagny quietly agrees with James and walks out.
Eddie is upset on her behalf but remains silent.
When they reach her office, Eddie tells her that Owen Kellogg wants a meeting. Dagny says to send him up.
While waiting she calls Richard Halley's publishing company and asks them if he wrote a Fifth Concerto. The man on the phone laughs and says no. Dagny hangs up.
Owen Kellogg comes in and tells Dagny that he's refusing her job offer.
Dagny is surprised and asks why.
He tells her that, for personal reasons, he can no longer work for Taggart Transcontinental. Dagny won't accept that.
He tells Dagny that he wanted to tell her in person because he respects her.
Dagny is depressed and again asks why. Owen just replies with our favorite question: Who is John Galt? Thus concludes the opening chapter of omens and doom.