After the Taggart wedding celebration, Lillian discovers that Rearden has a mistress, but she doesn't know who it is. Rearden realizes that Lillian intends to use his guilt as a means to control him. Dr. Ferris of the State Science Institute comes to Rearden's office and tells him that if he doesn't agree to sell Rearden Metal to the Institute, the government will put him on trial for selling an illegal amount of Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger. Rearden refuses to comply, and he and Danagger are indicted and will go to trial.
Eddie Willers tells the nameless worker in the Taggart cafeteria that Dagny worries about Danagger and that she believes there is a destroyer loose whose purpose is to drain the world's brains. She also believes that Danagger is ready — that he'll be the next to disappear. Eddie tells the worker that Dagny will see Danagger tomorrow, because she's desperate to reach him before the destroyer does. The next day, Dagny reaches Danagger too late. He has just seen a visitor and tells Dagny that he is retiring, but he'll say nothing more.
Francisco comes to Rearden's mills. He says that Rearden is guilty of only one thing: accepting moral condemnation for his virtues. Despite his brilliant work, Rearden has made no profit on Rearden Metal, while vicious connivers like Orren Boyle and his socialist pals received a fortune. Rearden's struggle to produce is met by every type of injustice, and he gets nothing for his effort. Only his tormentors benefit. Francisco mentions Atlas, the titan of Greek mythology who holds up the world. Francisco asks Rearden what he would say if he saw Atlas drained of strength, supporting the globe with the last of his energy, and gasping in pain. Rearden turns the question back to Francisco. Francisco says that he would tell Atlas to shrug. Francisco begins to ask Rearden what could make the suffering he has experienced worthwhile, but the alarm of a mill emergency interrupts him. The two fight a furnace breakout superlatively. When they're finished, Rearden asks Francisco to complete his question, but he won't. Francisco just learned the answer.
Francisco's discussion of Atlas is the title scene of the book. The discussion occurs in a context in which Rearden is blackmailed and indicted for his "crime" of carrying the country on his back. Rearden and Dagny are the last productive giants left in the world. The rest have been stifled and/or have disappeared. Without Rearden, the economy will collapse. He is the Atlas holding up the country's economic system. In return for his prodigious effort and life-giving achievements, he is morally condemned, robbed, harassed, threatened, blackmailed, and accused of criminal wrongdoing.
Francisco points out the terrible injustice that Rearden accepts — the injustice of the superbly virtuous man who carries a horde of vicious looters and permits them to set the moral terms. What if Atlas should throw the world off his shoulders and refuse to sacrifice his life for a world that victimizes him? What does this analogy mean for Rearden? Before Francisco can ask a more pointed question, the men are interrupted by the emergency of a furnace breakout. When the two have successfully combated it, Francisco backs away from their previous discussion. He knows that Rearden's ability to take joyous action in service of what he loves enables him to bear the heavy injustices. Nevertheless, Francisco's unasked question still hangs in the air. What will Rearden do when he's so shackled by the looters' controls that he can no longer serve his own values?
The other major event of this chapter is Dagny's realization that the retirement and disappearance of the world's great producers is not a series of unconnected occurrences. A conscious purpose ties the disappearances together — some diabolical plan to remove from the country its greatest minds. Dagny names the person or thing responsible the "destroyer." When she speaks to Ken Danagger, who announces his retirement based on his meeting with a mysterious visitor, Dagny's suspicions are confirmed. The questions raised here are of monumental importance. Who is the destroyer and what is his/her intent? Who is the nameless worker to whom Eddie Willers confides the railroad's secrets, and is he related to the destroyer's activities? What is Francisco's purpose in seeking the moral liberation of Hank Rearden? Dagny's search for answers will determine the future of industrial civilization.