In 2385, Commodore Oh addresses a gathering of Vulcan and Romulan agents of the Zhat Vash, including “Narissa Rizzo” and her aunt Ramdha, on Aia, the “Grief World”. She reminds them of the Admonition left behind by their ancestors on this world, and shows them the devastation caused by artificial lifeforms in the past, warning them that these images may cause them to go mad. As Oh warned, the others are overwhelmed by the images, some committing suicide with their disruptors, others bashing their own skulls in with rocks or trying to gouge out their eyes. “Narissa”, though shaken, seems unaffected, and tells Oh that “we have to stop them”, and asks how and where they can begin. “On the world the Humans call Mars,” Oh replies. “Narissa” goes over to help her aunt, who is the only other person still alive, telling her they had work to do.
Fourteen years later, aboard the Artifact, “Narissa” speaks to Ramdha, now an xB and comatose from her interaction with Soji Asha, commenting that there was no medical reason for her condition. She remarks it was “folly” that Ramdha took her and Narek in after the death of their parents, and “sheer madness” to submit herself to Admonishment, although she admires the “panache” with which Ramdha lost her mind, breaking a Borg cube by the sheer force of her despair. She remarks that Narek has found the “synethetics’ nest”, and that she will be joining him on the hunt as soon as she shuts down this “house of horrors”. She contacts one of her agents, Centurion Tarent, asking if he’d found “the freak”; Tarent confirms he has, having tracked Elnor to Hugh’s office.
Deep inside the cube, hearing footsteps, Elnor draws his blade; despite being disoriented by a stun grenade, he is able to hold his own for a time, until he is overwhelmed and held by the Romulan guards. Just then, some of the guards are hit by phaser blasts, while Elnor dispatches the rest. Seven of Nine then enters, asking where Hugh is, and wondering what was going on aboard the cube. Without a word, Elnor hugs her, relieved to see her.
Aboard La Sirena, Jean-Luc Picard introduces Soji to Cristóbal Rios, who appears to be disoriented. He tells Rios to set a course for the nearest starbase, Deep Space 12, and to get him a secure comm channel to Starfleet Command, much to the surprise of both Soji and Raffi. Rios finally says he will set the course, but after that, Picard is on his own. Soji is wrong-footed, as Picard had told her he was taking her home. Picard says he will, but given the nature of their enemy, they couldn’t get there without support, and tells her she has no choice but to trust him; he understands that would make her angry, and admits that he would be as well in that position, as he begins to take her to a cabin. Rafi, however, is less keen on having her aboard, remarking they already had one “adorable little homicidal double agent” onboard thanks to Picard, telling him “how big a fool” he was. Picard apologizes for Musiker’s rudeness and prepares to lead Soji away when Raffi draws a phaser, raging that Picard had built “this whole giant fantasy of rescue and sacrifice and redemption” all due to a single neuron. Picard angrily tells Raffi to either lower the phaser, or to shoot him; reluctantly, she does the former, then says that Agnes Jurati is probably a Romulan spy as she had a tracking isotope in her blood, and that the good doctor killed Bruce Maddox.
In La Sirena’s sickbay, the EMH explains to Picard that Jurati injected herself with noranium hydride, which canceled out the viridium tracker already in her system; when she did, Raffi adds, they lost the Tal Shiar ship shadowing them. The EMH explains that Maddox’s injuries had not been fatal, and that Jurati deactivated him before shutting down the hematic microrepair treatment that was stabilizing Maddox’s condition. Raffi reminds Picard she had been skeptical about bringing Jurati along in the first place, and questions whether he knows what Soji was really like… or if Soji knew herself. When he is unable to answer, she leaves to inform Rios that they had been right about Jurati.
Picard sends his report in to Fleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy, telling her that while she may have thought he was being a “desperate old man, quixotic, paranoid, possibly senile” (which the admiral elects to leave at “quixotic”), he remarks that “the windmills have turned out to be giants” after all. He asks for a squadron to travel to the Vayt sector to rescue beings who had as much life and liberty as they, or Data, had, and saying if she thought it was not a job for Starfleet, she was a “waste of space”. Clancy bluntly quiets him, telling him that a squadron was en route to rendezvous with him at DS12, and to stay put until they arrive.
On the bridge, Raffi begins explaining her concerns to who she thinks is Rios, when she realizes that “Rios” is in fact one of his holographic crew – in this case, “Enoch”, the Irish-accented navigator, who says that Rios set the course for DS12 before activating the holograms and shutting himself up in his quarters. While getting nowhere trying to talk about Soji, who he refers to as “Jana”, Musiker shows Enoch a design she kept picking up from the cube, which he identifies as an effort to draw an octonary, a planetary system with eight stars. He consults his archives and has found apocryphal references in ancient Romulan star atlases to such a system, which does not appear in any modern astral charts. Raffi gets to thinking that perhaps the Conclave of Eight, which she believes to be behind the attack on Mars, was not a reference to the number of people, but the place they met.
Aboard the Artifact, “Narissa” finds the guards killed by Elnor and Seven, and the comm chip from the Fenris Rangers. Inside the queencell, Seven asks Elnor why he didn’t go with Picard and Soji; Elnor replies that Picard released him from his pledge, and that he had found a cause even more lost than his. When he asks about how the queencell worked, Seven says she can either explain, or steal the cube. Her Borg implants allow her to bring the cube online, causing it to start regenerating. “Narissa” tells her guards to get rid of all the Borg still in stasis, while she handles the xBs.
Dining in La Sirena’s mess hall, Picard asks Soji about the food, and if she has a preference. Soji replies she honestly doesn’t know, and tells him he didn’t understand this “vacuum” inside her, where she didn’t know if it was her speaking or her instruction set. Picard admits he doesn’t, but tells her that while she may think she does not have a past anymore, he feels she still does, that she has “a story waiting to be claimed”. Soji recognizes that he’s referring to Data, among other things, and asks about him. Picard tells her of his bravery and curiosity, “a child’s wisdom, unclouded by habit or bias”. He admits to feeling a certain love for him in a way, but remarks that Data’s capacity to reciprocate that feeling, or express emotion at all, was limited, something he supposed they had in common. Soji asks how he thinks Data would see him now; Picard expresses the hope that Data would remember him as someone who believed in him and in his potential, celebrating his success and counseling him if he fell short, offering help, and knowing when to stay out of his way when he didn’t need it. Soji thinks on this, before remarking that Data loved him after all.
Still looking for Rios, Raffi encounters another of his holograms, “Ian”, the Emergency Engineering Hologram, who speaks with a Scottish accent and greets her as “lassie”. Before asking not to be called “lassie” again, Raffi asks if he’s seen Rios, to which Ian replies he hasn’t, as he’s still hiding in his cabin, remarking that seeing Soji likely brought up “unwelcome memories”. Raffi then asks what the likelihood of an octonary star system occurring naturally would be, which Ian believes would be “close to nil”, which would mean it would have to be constructed somehow… but why? Ian thinks it might be showing off, but Raffi, still working on her theory, wonders if perhaps it was meant to be a warning. Getting closer to finding what she thinks is the truth, Raffi admits she finds the feeling “absolutely terrifying”. Going to her quarters, Raffi tries to order a glass of wine when yet another Rios hologram, “Mister Hospitality”, activates, telling her that she disabled alcohol service from her quarters two days before, and completely locked herself out of overriding the system. When she asks about Rios, he tells her that he could use someone to talk to who didn’t look exactly like him.
In his own cabin, an intoxicated Rios opens his old chest from the USS ibn Majid, taking out his old uniform and other keepsakes, angrily telling Raffi to “piss off” when she tries to talk with him. Inside one of the boxes was a photograph of himself with his former captain, Alonzo Vandermeer, and a drawing of Rios… with someone who looks remarkably like Soji.
Back on the Artifact, Seven consults the cube’s systems, seeing those Borg that Hugh reclaimed, while thousands more remained in stasis. Elnor suggests waking them up, but Seven knows they would be useless without the voice of the Borg Collective. However, she could activate and link their tranceivers to create a sort of “mini-collective” on the cube, taking control of them to use against the Romulan troops. Seven is reluctant, as that would mean essentially assimilating them again, leaving them with no free will. Elnor naively suggests Seven simply release them after they win, but Seven tells him they might not want to be released… and she may not want to release them.
In Picard’s holodeck study, Raffi assembles Rios’ holographic crew, believing that somewhere under the “absurd spectacle” before her are five “broken pieces” of Rios himself, like they each got dealt a “hole card”, and asks them to turn them over. She tells Ian that he had referred to Soji as “Jana”, that he recognized her. Mister Hospitality believes that it had something to do with Captain Vandermeer on the ibn Majid. Emmet, the Emergency Tactical Hologram, actually falls “asleep” during the discussion, although when asked what happened to Vandermeer, he mimicks putting a phaser in his mouth and pulling the trigger, indicating the captain committed suicide. When she attempts to find out why, the holograms mention the ibn Majid’s logs were classified, and they seem to know why, but are unable to pinpoint it.
In La Sirena’s sickbay, Jurati regains consciousness to find Picard looking down at her, and asks if it worked. Picard confirms that she neutralized the viridium tracker before telling her they were en route to Deep Space 12, and upon arrival, she was to surrender herself to the authorities for the murder of Bruce Maddox. He then asks her why she killed Maddox, her mentor and lover. Jurati says that she “had to”, revealing that Commodore Oh had come to her before they left, and performed a mind meld to plant “poison” in her mind, as well as a psychic block to keep her from talking about it. She then asks Picard if he believed in hell, admitting she didn’t until she saw what Oh showed her. Picard asks if Oh’s vision was a memory she lived through; Jurati says it happened “thousands of centuries” ago, and that they were on a threshold: they had to destroy all possibility of synthetic life or “hell would come again”. When Picard asks about the threshold, Soji enters and says that it refers to the coming of Seb-Cheneb, the Destroyer… her.
Rios has fallen asleep in his quarters, listening to Billie Holiday’s “Solitude”, when Raffi enters and replicates a cup of black coffee. She asks him about Captain Vandermeer. Rios says he used to pretend Vandermeer was his father, calling him “Pops” in his head, but never guessed he would be a cold blooded murderer. Rios explains that while patrolling the Vayt sector, the ibn Majid picked up a small ship of unknown origin with two passengers, and alerted Starfleet of a first contact. They beamed the two beings aboard – the ambassador, Beautiful Flower, and his young protegee, Jana. They shook hands and sat down to eat, before Vandermeer killed them both with his phaser. Rios reveals that Vandermeer had received a “black flag directive” straight from Starfleet Security, and if Vandermeer disobeyed, Starfleet would destroy the ibn Majid with all hands. Rios confronted his captain, who then put the phaser into his mouth and pulled the trigger… and then Rios covered everything up, just as Vandermeer was ordered to do. He beamed the bodies into space, deleted the transporter logs, and told the fleet that Vandermeer had essentially committed suicide for no reason. Six months later, Rios was discharged from Starfleet, officially for post-traumatic dysphoria. He shows Raffi the drawing that Beautiful Flower made of Rios and Jana, the latter of whom looks exactly like Soji; Raffi realizes they were synths.
At the same time Rios is talking with Musiker, Jurati talks with Soji, asking about simple things – whether she eats, sleeps, what she does when she’s sad. She remarks on the constellation of three beauty marks on Soji’s right cheek, which she calls “artistry”, and how Data’s creator Noonian Soong had thought of himself an artist; Soji also adds that she has a mole on her chest and a crooked pinky toe. Jurati raves about how Soji was a technological work of art, but Soji asks her if she thinks she’s a person. She knows Commodore Oh has told Jurati to kill her too, but that she does not intend to allow her the opportunity. Jurati tells her that, now that she’s met Soji in person, she would never take that opportunity.
Aboard the Artifact, “Narissa” begins shooting down xBs in the reclamation lab. Looking at the thousands of drones still in stasis, she asks Tarent if they scared him; the centurion admits he would be a fool if they didn’t, but “Narissa” warns that something far worse was coming if she failed. In the queencell, Elnor and Seven watch the lifesigns begin to fade. Seven links herself into the cube’s systems, creating her “mini-collective”; in response, “Narissa” orders the drones vented into space.
Aboard La Sirena, Soji gently escorts Jurati out of sickbay, where the others are waiting. Jurati says she is “done murdering people”, and will turn herself in when they arrive at DS12. She confesses they were the closest she’d had to a crew, and apologizes for ruining it. Rios orders a cup of peppermint ice cream and a plate of French fries for Soji, remembering from his experience with Jana. Raffi explains what she has learned: Some two to three hundred thousand years earlier, eight suns were brought together with a planet in the center, which the Romulans called the “Admonition”, as a warning against allowing synthetic life to evolve. The Romulans took this warning seriously, creating the Zhat Vash. When Noonian Soong started creating his androids, the Zhat Vash sent Oh, a half-Vulcan/half-Romulan, as their mole in Starfleet, and she eventually rose to head of Starfleet Security, all the while with one mandate: Stop the Federation’s research on synthetic lifeforms. To that end, Oh engineers “a situation so terrifying” that the Federation’s only response was to ban synths: the attack on Mars. In 2390, the ibn Majid makes contact with a pair of emissaries: Beautiful Flower and Jana. Soji knows of Jana, but wonders how; Rios replies it was the same reason he knew she liked to dip French fries in peppermint ice cream. They had come from the world Maddox had fled to after the ban, which the Zhat Vash have been looking for ever since… a world they now know of because of Soji.
Soji angrily pounds the table and storms off to the bridge, bringing La Sirena’s engines online, sealing the bridge with a forcefield, and deactivating the holographic crew: She is taking the ship to her home planet. She has located a node of the Borg transwarp conduit network nine hours away at top speed, not sure how she knows. Rios begins to sing a song in Spanish, “Arroz con leche” – a lullaby his mother taught him, which acts as an override code, allowing him to take back control of the ship. Picard suggests that since they’ve done it Maddox’s way and his way up to that point, perhaps they should try to do things Soji’s way, and hope they were not too late. He sits down in the captain’s chair before he admits he has no idea how it works. Rios asks if Soji just planned to fly into a transwarp conduit, “gravimetric shear be damned”, and reminds her that La Sirena was his ship. She then asks him to take her home, for Jana’s sake. He relents, and takes the helm.
Aboard the Artifact, “Narissa” is informed that all of the Borg drones have been jettisoned, and that the fleet is prepared to travel to the synthetics’ homeworld, before she is ambushed by a group of xBs, who take down Tarent and manage to overpower her; however, she beams to safety as the Romulan ships begin going to warp. Speaking for the “mini-collective”, Seven intones that the cube was theirs again. Elnor warily asks if Seven intends to assimilate him now, to which the cube’s collective replies that “Annika still has work to do” before disconnecting from her.
As La Sirena goes to warp, Picard remembers standing night watch as an ensign on the bridge of the USS Reliant, thinking he was the only one awake in all that emptiness, forgetting until then how much he’d loved it. He tells Rios that he remembered Vandermeer, who had been first officer to a former classmate from Starfleet Academy, Captain Marta Batanides. He asks Rios if Vandermeer knew Beautiful Flower and Jana were synthetic. Rios believes he had to, and that Vandermeer must have thought because of that, he could live with killing them. Picard thought him a good man; Rios agrees he was, and that he hates the idea that Vandermeer died believing Starfleet had betrayed him, had betrayed itself. Picard says that Starfleet did indeed betray itself, long before Oh gave Vandermeer the order; the ban itself was the betrayal. The Zhat Vash had set the trap, and Starfleet had chosen to react in fear. Rios, however, is wary: it had taken Soji all of five minutes to hack his ship, and now they were en route to a whole planet of others like her. Raffi had said the Romulans called Soji “the Destroyer”; what if they were right? Picard agrees that they may have been right about what had happened in the past, but the future was theirs to write, and they had powerful tools to write it with: openness, optimism, and the spirit of curiosity, while the Zhat Vash only had secrecy and fear. Soji then arrives, and reports that they had arrived at the transwarp conduit. She then takes out Kestra’s compass, looking at it for a moment before Rios takes them in… followed by a Romulan scout ship.