The USS Discovery is preparing to arrive at the headquarters of the Federation and Starfleet and hopes for a welcome reception. As Saru stands in a corridor gazing out a window, Commander Michael Burnham approaches him and confirms that the ship’s records logs are ready to be handed over. Burnham notes that there will be many questions about The Burn, but says she has other things to ask about as well – her mother for one.
Discovery arrives at Federation Headquarters. The viewscreen shows a distortion, presumably a security measure, but Saru says Discovery is expected. As they pass through the distortion field, the crew sees a massive toroidal space generated by a glowing platform at the center, with multiple starships. Lt. Nilsson reports that some ships are made of neutronium-alloy fibers, which she says had only been theoretical; Sylvia Tilly notes some ships have organic hulls while others have only holographic containment walls. Joann Owosekun marvels at the size of one ship, Detmer notes the detached warp nacelles of another, and Nhan spots a scout ship. The crew also spies a massive forested disc, which Tilly calls a “flying rain forest,” drawing laughter from the others. They spy the USS Voyager-J and marvel that it is the eleventh ship to carry that name.
R.A. Bryce hails headquarters to report their arrival and is responded to with a scan. Detmer reports she has lost helm control, and Bryce reports that headquarters will dock Discovery remotely and has ordered Saru, Burnham, and Adira Tal to beam over. Burnham surmises Starfleet’s scans were precise enough to recognize the Tal symbiont. Saru leaves the conn to Nilsson, and the three beam directly over from the bridge.
Saru, Burnham, and Adira marvel at the advanced facility, a gleaming white space inside the central platform. They are greeted by Admiral Charles Vance, Starfleet’s commander in chief, and Lieutenant Audrey Willa, his chief security officer. Vance notes he has not seen a Kelpien in some time; Kaminar was last known to be “status quo,” he says, but is far enough away that little contact has been had with Kaminar and many other Federation planets since the Burn. Saru is stunned to find that Kaminar had joined the Federation.
Another officer interrupts to report that the USS Cuyahoga has reported Orion and Andorian vessels in the Sigma Draconis star system. “It’s the Emerald Chain,” she says. Vance replies that Osyraa is quickly becoming more brazen. He orders regular updates on the situation.
Vance turns back to Adira, who tells him that Senna Tal did not mean to keep Vance waiting but that he wished to remain on Earth a little longer to see snow one last time. Vance warns Adira that while he was familiar with Senna Tal, he is not familiar with her.
The group looks over a rail at multiple humanoid aliens lying in biobeds, and the officer reports that Dr. Eli, a hologram, has given them just hours to live. Misfolding proteins called prions are causing cascading nervous system failure in the Kili. Burnham says they cannot be treated until it is determined where they were infected, offering to analyze their travel roster. Vance replies they are already researching their logs, dismissing Burnham’s offer. Saru says Discovery is anxious to help the Federation, but Vance says they must be debriefed first.
In Vance’s office, Burnham explains their journey to the future. She confirms she sent the Red Angel suit back into the wormhole to send a final signal to Spock before it self-destructed. They also explain how the Sphere data included a hundred thousand years of information collected over the entity’s lifetime. Eli, who has been staring up close at Burnham and Saru during the meeting, interrupts to say Saru is the last known Kelpian to exhibit the biochemical traces of Vahar’ai and that Burnham may be prone to “emotion exaggeration.” Vance notes that AI has improved greatly in the past 930 years, before dismissing Eli, who disappears.
Vance reveals that they are aware of just thirty-eight member worlds remaining in the Federation, down from three hundred and fifty at its peak, though he expresses hope that more worlds remain members but are simply out of reach since subspace relays went down. The facility represents both Starfleet Headquarters and the entire Federation civilian government. Burnham begins to ask about The Burn, but Vance cuts her off, saying he is not at liberty to discuss intelligence with her yet. He notes that – although he knows they’re not lying, there are no historical records to confirm their story. Two truths exist.
Vance says much of the 30th century was spent fighting a war to uphold the Temporal Accords, which outlawed time travel, making Discovery‘s mere presence in 3189 a crime. Saru and Burnham protest, saying that traveling to the future was the only way to ensure Control could not destroy all sentient life in the galaxy. Vance says that if true he would be grateful, but that trusting them without evidence is too great a risk. He plans to study Discovery for retrofit and says the crew may be assigned elsewhere, alarming Saru and Burnham. They begin to protest, but Vance asks them to continue to uphold the ideals of the Federation by putting the needs of Starfleet against the needs of the crew.
Back in Saru’s ready room, Burnham argues that there is no crew with the experience of Discovery, nor is anyone else capable of operating the spore drive. Saru agrees, but says they must carry out Vance’s orders as Starfleet officers. Desperate, Burnham says Discovery could prove its worth by figuring out where the Kili picked up the infectious protein and curing them. Saru says Discovery is in a position to help but that they must request the necessary roster via proper channels as he does not wish the ship’s first act to be violating a direct order.
In the shuttlebay onboard Discovery, the assembled crew is disturbed to hear Starfleet may break them up, but Saru asks them to trust the process. Each crewmember is interviewed by holographic Starfleet officers. One listens to Hugh Culber‘s story about dying and being resurrected. Reno explains to another how she was rescued from the USS Hiawatha, and asks for a snack. While she munches on chips and salsa, the officer asks about the Emerald Chain. Reno asks if it’s some sort of Risan party drug, but the officer replies that it is the Andorian-Orion syndicate. Stamets is affronted when asked if he is “essential personnel.” Meanwhile, Tilly discusses “getting [her] hair blown out and becoming a Terran captain-slash-dominatrix” in the mirror universe. And Nhan repeats her name, rank, serial number, and assignment to her interviewer.
At Federation Headquarters, Saru and Burnham ask Willa to share the roster of planets the Kili refugees had visited, but she brushes them off. Burnham notes the spore drive allows Discovery to travel great distances instantaneously, and that sharing the roster will either save lives or allow Willa to “hate [Discovery] a little more for wasting your time.”
In a holding cell, two holographic officers tell Philippa Georgiou that their scans immediately detected her as a Terran. Georgiou, however, only stares at an older Human male standing nearby, wearing a suit and Starfleet badge.
The holograms interrogate her, revealing that in the prior century they had discovered a chimeric strain on the subatomic level in Terrans’ stem cells. Georgiou responds that they cannot rattle her by adding a “completely fabricated biological component to [her] nastiness and inherently bad behavior,” insisting that she is “extremely wicked, even for a Terran.” Suddenly, the holograms begin to malfunction and go offline; Georgiou reveals to the man she blinked at their harmonic rate to disrupt their protocols, create a reference loop, and shut them down.
She asks why he wears glasses; he responds that they make him look smarter.
In the headquarters sickbay, the Kili are worsening quickly.
Saru and Burnham tell Vance they believe the refugees became sick on Urna, a planet deserted for centuries. Saru says it used to be an industrial hub, and Burnham says in their time the Federation was just learning about its toxicity. A thinning atmosphere and high concentrations of UVB radiation was expected to mutate the indigenous biosphere. The Kili must have eaten infected plants scavenged on Urna. Eli says the only way to create an antidote would be to obtain a healthy protein sample of the plant they ingested, but that since the entire planet had been irradiated that was no longer possible. Burnham remembers that in the 23rd century, the Federation had a seed-vault ship, the USS Tikhov, which would have pristine samples aboard. The Tikhov still exists but would take five months to reach, Vance says. Burnham says Discovery‘s spore drive can get there and back in time to save the refugees, but Vance orders Willa to study the ship’s specs and train a Federation team to pilot the vessel. Burnham protests that Vance is wasting time by teaching a new crew how to pilot an ancient vessel with an unusual new propulsion system, and he tells her to watch her tone. Saru convinces Vance to allow the crew to remain and Burnham to command the mission while he stays at Federation headquarters to build trust. Willa and two security officers will accompany Burnham.
With Burnham in command, Discovery undocks and moves to a safe distance from the headquarters. Willa questions whether the ship can really do what Burnham has promised, drawing skeptical looks from the bridge crew. Discovery has three hours to obtain the seeds and synthesize the antidote. Burnham orders black alert, and the ship jumps away.
It arrives just outside an ion storm, and they speculate the Tikhov is inside and must be retrieved. As it approaches, Discovery is hit by an energy blast, draining the shield to ninety percent. Owosekun locates the Tikhov; its warp drive is offline and the ship is running on auxiliary power. Some sort of radiation is interfering with Discovery‘s scans and she cannot tell if any life signs are aboard. Discovery is rocked by a second wave and Gen Rhys says the ship is not steady enough to deploy tractor beams on the Tikhov. Detmer momentarily panics, but Owosekun reassures her. Detmer deploys reverse thrusters to get Discovery clear, and Rhys is finally able to secure the Tikhov in a tractor beam. Owosekun praises Detmer, who only replies that it was a “closer call than it should have been.” Owosekun reports that the radiation is not ionizing and so should not pose a health risk, but that something about it is odd. Tilly begins analyzing the radiation.
Culber arrives on the bridge and Burnham tells him there may be a medical emergency aboard the Tikhov. For five hundred years, each Federation planet has taken a turn maintaining the ship; the current caretakers are Barzan, which intrigues Nhan. Willa tells her that Barzan joined the Federation in the 25th century; Burnham asks Nhan to join the away team. The air on the ship is breathable to Barzans, meaning she and Culber will need breathing apparatuses while Nhan can go without hers.
Leaving Rhys in charge of the bridge, Burnham, Culber, and Nhan beam over to the Tikhov and are astonished to find plants growing everywhere. The seed vault must have been compromised, Burnham speculates. The ship is supposed to be crewed by two scientists and their two children, but residual radiation is interfering with their tricorders, making it difficult to locate them. As they search for the vault, a distortion follows close behind.
Back in the interrogation room, the unnamed older man says that Georgiou is curious about his badge. He gives it to her, and she smashes it with the heel of her boot and plays with the parts. The man, who frequently adjusts his glasses, questions why she is traveling with Discovery. He reveals his birthday is April 5 – the anniversary of Earth’s First Contact with the Vulcans, a “Terran holy day,” Georgiou says. He notes that in the Terran universe, Humans slaughtered the Vulcans, and that he has been interested in the mirror universe since he was a boy.
Georgiou agrees Terrans mostly act without “pesky motivations,” though she says they do like revenge. She offers to answer his questions if he answers hers, but he rejects her, saying she would not actually comply or would lie. Georgiou questions who is really in charge following The Burn and asks who was responsible. The man says there are conflicting theories but no hard proof for any of them. Georgiou says The Burn set the Federation back a step, but the man retorts that it has endured, unlike the Terran empire, which he says fell long ago.
He also says the distance between the two universes starting expanding after her departure and that there has not been a crossing in five hundred years, meaning Georgiou is all alone. The man surmises that there is a person on Discovery‘s crew that Georgiou cares about, explaining why Georgiou has remained aboard.
On the Tikhov, the away team finds the family’s living quarters, where a holographic projection shows them playing a game. The mother hums to one child, and Burnham recognizes the tune as the lullaby played by Adira on the cello, which had been played by Senna Tal‘s parents when he was a boy. Burnham beams into the vault while Culber while Nhan, mesmerized by the holographic recording, says she wished she could have gone home before they traveled to the future. Barzan’s poverty meant they invested in their children, she tells Culber. He says her family must have been proud when she joined Starfleet, but she says they were devastated, and can only imagine their reaction to her supposed death. Culber goes to check on Burnham, leaving Nhan to search their logs. She finds an entry in which the distressed father, Dr. Attis, says he cannot get out of the ion storm and that he cannot identify “the light that hurt them.” He speculates that the vault may contain a cure and the log ends, but Nhan notices he is distorted strangely in the recording.
Culber calls Nhan to another room, where they discover stasis pods holding the mother and two children. Despite being in cryostasis, Culber notes all three are dead. Nhan deduces that Attis is still alive and trying to save them by finding a cure in the vault, explaining the plants all over the ship.
Inside the vault, Burnham is unable to provide the verbal code to access the seeds. Suddenly, Attis appears and fights her to protect the seeds, but then disappears.
Outside the vault, Burnham tells the others that it was as if his body was out of phase. Nhan reports seeing that in his log. Culber says grief appears to have caused Attis to disconnect from the reality that his family is dead, but Nhan says Barzans think about death differently than humans, meaning his behavior may be logical. Ultimately, Burnham notes, they need his voice authorization to obtain the Urna seeds. Burnham postulates that his phasing may be why he survived when his family did not.
Aboard Discovery, Stamets, Reno, and Tilly are nearly done studying the radiation. Willa notes the three do not have a particularly professional relationship. Burnham contacts them to report that Attis reported seeing a bright light, that the family’s bodies have high concentrations of beta particles and that Attis is phasing uncontrollably. The trio quickly surmise that the Tikhov was hit by a coronal mass ejection from a nearby star. The massive radioactive proton storm would have been deadly, but they conclude Attis had been beaming into the vault at the time, and the CME interfered with the ship’s magnetic shielding and destabilized his body’s polarization on a quantum level. Tilly reports she believes she can bring him back into phase.
They cut power to the stasis pods, drawing Attis out, and catch him in a transporter beam that brings him back into phase inside the seed vault. Willa tells Stamets, Reno, and Tilly that despite their disfunction, they make a good team, though Stamets and Reno disagree about whether they have accepted the dysfunction.
Nhan tells Attis that they are not trying to stop his search for a cure, just to obtain the Urna seeds, but Attis is unresponsive. Culber tells Burnham that she needs to make it clear to him that his family is dead and that he is in danger without getting help soon. Burnham tells him bluntly that his family is gone and that he knows there is nothing he can do to change that, but that the seeds could help the Kili. Tearful, Attis stands and enters his code, “Amma Tolpra.” Nhan says they are the most beautiful moons in the Barzan system. Attis replies they are also his dead daughters’ names. Nhan withdraws the Urna seeds.
Burnham prepares to beam Attis to the Discovery sickbay, but he refuses to leave. Culber warns him that he was irradiated by the CME and that his internal organs have been damaged, necessitating treatment. Outside the vault, Culber says he is acting irrationally and that he is endangering the Tikhov and the living history of the Federation that it contains. Burnham sends Culber and the seeds back to Discovery to begin work on the antidote. She tells Nhan that she respects Attis’ personal decision but that Starfleet has its own needs, and that “sometimes there is no good choice, only what you can live with.” Then, Nhan volunteers to remain behind.
Burnham tells Nhan staying would mean giving up her career. Nhan says that considering what she did to Airiam, she is “good here” and will make sure Attis’ family returns home for a proper burial and that the Barzans’ watch over the Tikhov is completed successfully. She expresses happiness at a chance to see her homeworld again and reminds Burnham of her remarks at Airiam’s funeral – that “one of the reasons we join Starfleet is to reach for the best in ourselves and each other.” Nhan says she has never seen anyone reach for the best in others like Burnham and urges her never to stop. They tearfully embrace and say they hope to see each other again someday. Burnham beams back to Discovery, and Nhan watches from a window as the ship jumps away.
Back at Federation headquarters, Burnham reports on the successful mission.
Saru says Discovery stands ready for further assignments, but Vance warns that exploratory missions are now an unaffordable luxury. Saru tells Vance about the Dark Ages, a time before the Renaissance when Humanity was plagued by war and disease. But an artist named Giotto helped launch the Renaissance by discovering three-point perspective, the technique used in two-dimensional art to represent three-dimensional depth. That inspired Humans, Saru says, and Discovery‘s unique perspective could help the Federation of 3189 to “look up” at the stars. Vance admits they have been in triage for a long time, and Burnham urges him to keep Discovery together with its crew. Vance warns that they have not yet dealt with the trauma of time travel, noting particularly that Detmer is unstable, but Burnham says she trusts her. Vance relents, but says Discovery will go where he says when he orders it; Saru and Burnham acknowledge his demands. Burnham asks about The Burn, but Vance says there is not enough data to support any theory about its origin and says the Federation has more immediate concerns; Burnham understands and accepts that challenge. Vance welcomes them home, effectively accepting them back to Starfleet.
In sickbay, Culber gives the Kili the antidote. Burnham asks Willa about the music she heard aboard the Tikhov. Willa replies that she and around half the people at headquarters knew some version. Burnham questions how Attis, too far from Federation headquarters to have traveled there before, would know the same song as so many others.
On Discovery, Burnham runs into Georgiou in a corridor but finds her standing unresponsive. After prompting her several times, Georgiou finally responds and brushes off Burnham’s concerns, but looks worried as she walks away.
Later, Burnham and Saru stare out the window. The new Federation of the future does not yet feel like home, she admits, but she hopes it will eventually. She adds that the Federation is its people and that she cannot separate them anymore, instead seeing “one living organism,” as Saru states. He also suggests that she chooses her words more carefully with Vance going forward. Saru says there is still much they do not know, but that they “are both looking up.”