"It is a sin to write this," our narrator tells us in the very first sentence.
The narrator explains that no one can write unless they're asked to by the Council of Vocation. Writing and thinking for oneself are not allowed.
The narrator also noticeably speaks only in the first-person plural.
Ah yes, time for the setting: a dark tunnel, lit by candlelight. The narrator's all alone there – this constitutes another great evil.
The narrator stole the candle he's using (needless to say, also a crime…we're starting to get the hang of this, aren't we?). But he, assuming it's a he, doesn't care. All that matters is his "work."
Finally, we get the narrator's name: Equality 7-2521. Equality 7-2521 is 21, and six feet tall. Taller than most other people, which he tells us is a sign of evil.
Equality 7-2521 was born with a curse: he's been thinking forbidden thoughts for most of his life. And he doesn't resist them.
This is bad, because according to the World Council, all men must strive to be completely alike. All people must form one big, happy, indivisible "WE."
It's been that way ever since the Great Rebirth, Equality 7-2521 tells us. No one remembers what the world was like before then. (Then again, if anyone talked about that, it'd mean three years in the slammer.)
Anyway, since the Great Rebirth, everyone has known the Great Truth: "that all men are one and that there is no will save the will of all men together" (1.10).
Equality 7-2521 however, is not like everyone else. He never has been. And that makes him evil. He starts to tell us his story.
When Equality 7-2521 was a kid, he fought with the other kids in the Home of the Infants. This makes him evil according to the state.
When Equality 7-2521 was living and studying in the House of the Students from five to fifteen, he was not happy, because what everyone else was learning was too easy for him. This also makes him evil.
Equality 7-2521 tried to imitate the "half-brained" Union 5-3992 so he could blend in better, but couldn't. He was different. As a result he was whipped quite frequently. Again, this makes him evil.
Equality 7-2521 was also guilty of thinking about what he wanted to be when he grew up. No one's supposed to do that – it's the Transgression of Preference. Individuals are not supposed to prefer any one thing over another. (It makes them too individual, we suppose).
Everyone receives a job for life (or "Mandate") from the Council of Vocations, which supposedly determines the best way for each person to serve the community. According to the Teachers, there's no reason to "burden the earth with your bodies" besides serving "brother men" (1.20).
Equality 7-2521 didn't absorb any of this well. For a long time, he wanted to be a Scholar. And not so much for the sake of his "brother men," but because he loved the "Science of Things" and wanted to know all about the world and its mysteries.
The Scholars, by the way, are the scientists and inventors. Their most recent brilliant invention was the candle, which they came up with, um, 100 years ago.
Anyway, Equality 7-2521 wanted to be a Scholar, with all his heart. But he was punished when it came time for the Council of Vocations to assign him a job.
On the first day of spring, when Equality 7-2521 was fifteen, he gathered with all of the other students in a great hall before the Council of Vocations. Each student would come forward and have his profession (Doctor, Cook, Leader, and so on) called out by the Council.
When it was Equality 7-2521's turn to come forward before the Council, he waited in suspense for his Mandate.
It was Street Sweeper. Bummer!
But strangely, Equality 7-2521 was happy. This was an opportunity to make up for all his sins and humble himself before his brothers, right? He accepted his assignment with joy, he tells us.
So Equality 7-2521 went to the Home of the Street Sweepers.
It's a pretty regular life, day-in, day-out, he says. The Street Sweepers get up every day, eat together, go to work for five hours, come back home for lunch, go to work five more hours, come back for dinner, and then go to Social Meeting to hear speeches from the community's Leaders.
After that, it's time for three hours of Social Recreation – fun time! Which consists of seeing fantastically exciting plays about how wonderful is to work. Every night.
Equality 7-2521 lived like that every day for four years. Normally, that would have been his life until he was forty. That's when people stop working and get sent to the Home of the Useless to live out their old age and die.
But then, one day, two springs ago, Equality 7-2521 tells us, his "crime happened." And now it's time for a flashback scene.
So, here's Equality 7-2521 working in his usual team of three, with Union 5-3992 and International 4-8818. (Like he does with himself, by the way, he refers to each of them in the plural).
Union, if you remember, is the guy our narrator called "half-brain." International 4-8818, on the other hand, is "different," like Equality 7-2521: he (or is it she?) liked to draw pictures for fun, which was also evil. That's why International 4-8818 also happened to wind up a Street Sweeper.
International 4-8818 and Equality 7-2521 think of each other as friends, though they never talk about it. Friendship's evil too, since everyone is supposed to love everyone else equally.
Anyway, International 4-8818, Union, and Equality 7-2521 are collecting trash in a ravine behind the Theater when Equality 7-2521 comes across an old and rusty iron bar on the ground. He tries to pick it up, but can't.
International 4-8818 comes over to help, and together they move the dirt around the bar to discover it's actually a grate, over a hole in the ground. And Equality 7-2521 moves the grate to discover a hole leading down into a deep, dark shaft.
Equality 7-2521 tells International 4-8818 he wants to go down. International 4-8818 does not think this is a good idea – it's forbidden.
Equality 7-2521 goes anyway. International 4-8818 stays nearby, watching.
Equality 7-2521 descends down the shaft on "rings" until his foot reaches ground. He waits for his eyes to become used to the darkness.
Around him, Equality 7-2521 sees a great tunnel, with walls "hard and smooth" but not of stone. On the ground are long thin tracks of iron, only…not iron. Smooth and cold.
Equality 7-2521 kneels forward and gropes along the tracks. They lead on into the dark, and Equality 7-2521 wants to follow them, but is afraid to do so without any light.
So Equality 7-2521 crawls back to the shaft leading up to the hole. And realizes, as he does, that the place must be from the Unmentionable Times.
Equality 7-2521 goes back up the shaft and finds International 4-8818 still waiting. Equality 7-2521 can't speak, he's so amazed.
International 4-8818 tells Equality 7-2521 he plans to report what they've found to the City Council.
Equality 7-2521 tells International 4-8818 they won't report it to anyone. International 4-8818 is shocked.
Equality 7-2521 asks International 4-8818 if he intends to report him to the Council and see him get killed.
International 4-8818 says he would rather die.
Equality 7-2521 says International 4-8818 should keep his mouth shut. This place, Equality 7-2521 says, belongs to him, Equality 7-2521, and no one else. He'd rather die than lose it.
International 4-8818 is on the verge of tears, and tells Equality 7-2521 that what they are doing is evil. But he'd rather do evil with Equality 7-2521 than good with everyone else.
Equality 7-2521 and International 4-8818 walk back in silence to the Home of the Street Sweepers.
Each night after that, Equality 7-2521 tells us, he would sneak out of the Theater during fun time and go down into the tunnel to spend a couple of hours there. It was easy enough to sneak back into line next to International 4-8818 when everyone left the theater.
Equality 7-2521 has stolen candles from the Home of the Street Sweepers, along with paper, knives and flint. And he's also filched various vials, powders and acids from the Home of the Scholars.
Every night Equality 7-2521 performs different experiments and makes strange metals. He's even made an oven of bricks he's picked up in the streets.
Equality 7-2521 has also stolen manuscripts from the House of the Clerks so he can study them himself. That's a serious no-no. Manuscripts are precious.
Equality 7-2521 tells us he's had his little hide away set up for two years now. And during that time, he's learned much more than he learned in ten years in the House of the Students. He's already learned things no Scholar even knows.
Equality 7-2521 admits that he's evil. He's the only person on earth doing something just because he wishes to do it.
But Equality 7-2521 has no shame or regret. Instead, he feels the first real peace in his heart he's ever known.