PREVIOUSLY: Dagny took a tour of John Galt’s secret society in remote Colorado. It was like the bastard child of Portlandia and a Scientology compound.
Dr. Stadler, spiritually atrophied physics genius, arrives in a vast Iowa field for reasons he’s not quite clear on. He just knows his handlers told him to be here for “the unveiling.” His nefarious right-hand man Floyd “Jafar” Ferris is there, in the know but evasive.
Stadler feels a sickening in his gut but does his best to ignore it as the country’s leading lights and even President Thompson show up. Ferris mentions that it is the mysterious Project X that is being unveiled and the pit in Stadler’s stomach deepens.
Everybody sits in the viewing area facing the field and gets a pair of goggles. There’s a very “atom bomb test” vibe in the air. Ferris gets up to the mic and starts warming up the crowd. He points to an ugly mushroom-shaped building out in the field a ways. It’s giving off a sinister aura and Ferris is explaining how it emits signal waves into the air, etc etc. Wait, did they just invent wireless internet? I’m confused. Anyway it has a range two hundred miles in diameter, but later models could reach up to six hundred.
Stadler zones out, distracted by an abandoned farm house out in the distance and a few goats prancing around it. Until, that is, Ferris wraps up and some scientist lackey turns on the machine.
In the length of a mere instant, all of the goats float into the air, jerking and spasming unnaturally, then falling together in a mangled pile of fur and legs akimbo. The abandoned farmhouse splinters into its component pieces and then collapses to the ground. Project X is a doomsday machine! Shocking NOBODY.
The crowd sits in horrified silence, unsure how to react. Stadler thinks “this was the realm of a child’s nightmare, where material objects could be dissolved by means of a single … wish.” Ah, so it is the internet!
Anyway, Stadler confronts Ferris. “What the fuck?” he demands. “Chill out, Doc, this is a great tool of peace,” Ferris explains, Orwell-style. Stadler: “How’s that exactly?” Ferris: “Mutually Assured Destruction. Also a chilling effect on domestic unrest.”
Then Ferris turns to the television cameras and tells the nation how proud they all are of this patriotic achievement and how it’s all thanks to Dr. Stadler’s groundbreaking work in theoretical physics. While a number of other speakers stand up to orate about Project X (officially titled the Thompson Harmonizer), Ferris dismissively hands Stadler a pre-written speech to read at the climax of the broadcast.
Stadler makes his last stand. He excoriates Ferris for abusing his authority to bring a devastating tool of oppression into the world. Ferris laughs it off and goes on a proudly nihilistic rant about how there is nowhere left for Stadler to turn now, and how he must embrace the impotence of logic and morality and truth in our age of spin and marketing. “Speaking of which,” Ferris concludes, “you’re up next.”
As the cowardly Doctor steps up to the podium, an idealistic young reporter, let’s call him Jimmy Olsen, rushes the stage. “Don’t do it, Doc! Speak truth to power! Call out these fascists for what they are!” But it is too late. Defeated, zombie-like, Stadler addresses the nation with Ferris’ hollow words, praising the Harmonizer while Ferris sees to the expulsion of Jimmy.
NEXT! In New York City, Dagny Taggart has returned from her secret visit to John Galt’s Church of Mammon and is freshly perplexed by the glassy eyes and willful ignorance of the despairing populace in the outside world. People now seem like unreasoning animals she cannot understand and to whom she cannot relate. So the sociopathy in Galt’s Gulch has rubbed off after all.
Dagny knows that her return will spark a media firestorm. She’s heard word-of-mouth stories about some new technology from the DOD, but she hasn’t paid enough attention to catch the details. Her first task upon getting back to her apartment is to get in touch with Hank Rearden.
She reaches him in Colorado, where he’s been searching for the wreckage of her plane. He is extremely relieved to learn she’s alive, and doesn’t even care when she dodges all his questions about where she was and why it took her so long to come back. They agree to meet once he gets back to New York.
Next stop is her old office at Taggart Transcon. Eddie is there serving as manservant to the venal bureaucrat now running the company. He is chained up and wearing a Princess Leia bikini. It’s pretty gross.
When Dagny shows up, an unimpressed Jabba sees himself out. Eddie kisses Dagny’s hand, which is the most assertive thing he’s done in 700 pages. Together, they go to meet with the vile and impotent Jim.
Actually, they make him come to Dagny’s office, where he is clearly a nervous wreck. He insists that Dagny needs to hold a press conference explaining her absence, but she just dictates a press release to Eddie about how she was in a plane crash and spent the month recuperating at a remote farm in Wyoming.
Jabba the Hutt comes back and the increasingly panicky Jim tries to act like Dagny and Jabba are gonna get along great while Jabba takes over the company as part of the railroad industry’s nationalization. They talk a bunch of technical jargon about how the train system is being run these days. It is a thrilling exercise in suspenseful prose.
As the abysmal state of America’s infrastructure comes into sharper focus, Jim reverts to his usual anxious excuse-spewing self, which seems to annoy Jabba as much as it annoys Dagny. She realizes that he feels guilty, though he would never admit it, and that he has lost his power and influence, and now feels doomed to become a victim of his own schemes.
Jabba’s business done, he leaves again. Jim immediately harangues Dagny some more about how she will definitely go on some talk show and reassure the nation that she isn’t a political dissident, that the economy will rebound now that she has returned, no ifs ands or buts.
She quietly observes his freak out for a hot minute and then calmly refuses to enable his propaganda campaigns any longer. His hysteria reaches a boiling point and he goes into a despairing, frightened version of Ferris’ speech from earlier. Nihilism is the fundamentally true philosophy, there is no use in resisting the inertia of social corruption, you’ve just got to play along, blah blah blah.
But Dagny, increasingly confident that she is coming to understand the moral rot pervading the world, kicks him out for being depressing and pathetic. Fair call.