At the Daystrom Institute in Okinawa on Earth, Dr. Agnes Jurati is listening to Kasseelian opera and eating sushi when she is approached by Commodore Oh of Starfleet Security. The commodore asks about her two recent meetings with Jean-Luc Picard, starting with the first at the institute in which Picard mentioned his belief he interacted with an synthetic lifeform, before discussing the whereabouts of Bruce Maddox and his work in fractal neuronic cloning. Following that meeting, Jurati transferred more than three hundred gigabytes of data on Maddox’s work to a PADD, presumably for Picard’s use. Oh then asks what she discussed with Picard at the second meeting, at his home in La Barre. Jurati jokingly remarks they discussed the works of Isaac Asimov, but eventually admits she expressed how sorry she was that she had been unable to meet Dahj Asha. Oh explains that Starfleet needed her help: Picard notified Starfleet that he is planning to travel off-world to find Maddox and Soji Asha, and Oh asks Jurati to accompany him. To better explain, Oh performs a mind meld, showing Jurati that Earth will be destroyed if synthetic life is allowed to exist. Oh then gives Jurati a form of edible tracking device, and tells her that a “terrible sacrifice” must be made.
Three weeks later, La Sirena is caught in the Artifact‘s tractor beam, as Cristóbal Rios and Raffi Musiker try to hack the systems to break free so they can follow Picard and Soji Asha to Nepenthe, days away at maximum warp. Jurati suggests they simply ask the Romulans to let them go: they’re after Soji, not them.
Aboard the Artifact, the xBs are lined up before the Romulan guards while “Narissa Rizzo” holds Hugh at gunpoint, demanding to know where he is hiding Picard and Soji. When he remains silent, the guards kill one of the xBs. “Narissa” tries again: she knows Hugh, Picard, and Soji went into Subsector 11 of the old cube, but only Hugh returned. Hugh will only say they’re gone, but not where. “Narissa” expresses boredom, and orders the guards in Romulan to kill all of the xBs. As Hugh watches in horror, the guards mow them down. As Hugh mourns the loss, “Narissa” expresses her hatred for the “vile” cube and the xBs, before saying that their former Borg status was not what killed them, but rather Hugh letting Picard and Soji escape, ruining years of work by “patient operatives”, and possibly dooming a trillion people across half the galaxy; only Hugh’s Federation citizenship and the treaty creating the Borg Reclamation Project kept her from killing him as well. She communicates with Narek, who is taking a ship out of the cube to follow La Sirena, before she has them released from the tractor beam. Raffi recognizes it’s a trick, but Rios is confident: they’ll have to catch him first.
Jurati asks about Elnor, who is still aboard the Artifact. Elnor steps out of the shadows of the cube, finding Hugh amidst the dead xBs, when he is contacted by Rios. Angered at seeing the murdered xBs, Elnor chooses to remain behind with Hugh, determined not to allow it to happen again. Rios remarks to him that everyone on the ship thinks he was crazy, but admits (after being prompted by Jurati) that they think him brave, as well. La Sirena goes to warp, with Narek’s ship right behind them.
Picard and Soji emerge from the spatial trajector on Nepenthe, where they are immediately held at bow and arrow-point by a young girl in American Indian attire; Picard remarks that she may want to aim at his head, as his heart was solid duritanium, to which the girl adjusts her aim accordingly. Soji looks worried, as Picard said it was a safe place. Picard smiles knowingly before he asks the girl, “Are we safe here, Kestra?” Kestra lowers her bow as Picard asks if her parents are about.
Kestra asks Soji if Picard is her father or grandfather, to which Soji replies that she doesn’t know him, only that he said he was a friend of her father. Kestra thinks that Soji doesn’t believe Picard, as Soji says she doesn’t believe anyone. Soji then asks about Kestra’s compass, which Kestra says was a gift from Captain Rupert Crandall, a friend who lived near Infinity Lake and who was “even older than Picard”; she later says the compass is broken. Kestra asks if Soji believes her, and when asked if she’d lied, Kestra admits she’s only wearing a costume for a game she played with her brother Thaddeus, but that the arrows were real, though she wouldn’t shoot anyone with them because she’s a pacifist. When asked about Soji’s father, Picard remarks that Kestra has probably heard of Data, leading Kestra to realize Soji is an android. Soji is upset by this, remarking about how everything about her life, her dreams, even her sister, were all fake. Picard reassures her that Dahj was indeed real, but that she had been killed by the Romulans. Soji, though tearful at this, continues to believe it was all a “mind game”.
Upon arriving at a small, well-kept house in the woods, Soji asks Picard about the occupants, whom he calls “old friends”, while Kestra calls for her parents. Deanna Troi steps out onto the porch to trim the plants, looking up first at hearing Kestra, then with joy to see Picard walking up. As she hugs him, she recognizes he’s in trouble, and asks how bad. “Bad enough,” Picard admits. He introduces Troi to Soji. Kestra then calls for her father, Will Riker, who is working in the kitchen; at first, he tells her to stop yelling, then looks up in shock when she tells him Picard was there, before seeing him in his living room.
As he joyfully reunites with his old captain, Riker can also see that Picard needs a place to hide out, and orders the house’s shields raised – a precaution due to trouble with the Kzinti. Picard also suggests anti-cloaking scans, as the Romulans are involved.
Riker reminds Picard that he had warned him during the supernova crisis that he would be “ass-deep in Romulans” for the rest of his life, and also Newton‘s fourth law of thermodynamics: “No good deed goes unpunished”. Troi enters, saying Kestra was showing Soji to the shower, and explained that while Soji seemed Human with a full emotional range, Troi couldn’t read her thoughts. Picard admits he’s “in over his head”, that he had left Earth with a plan, a ship, even a crew, and now he had “half a plan”, with Soji still in danger. Riker suggests he needs a new plan, to which Troi adds it could start with a nap, offering their son’s room while Riker prepares dinner – pizza with tomato and basil, and non-venomous bunnicorn sausage. Both Riker and Troi make clear that however long Picard needs to stay, he is welcome.
Soji uses the outdoor shower while Kestra asks her questions: can Soji play the violin, does she like Sherlock Holmes, or have super speed and strength – all things Kestra knew Data could do. She finds it “weird” that Soji has blood, saliva, and mucus, things Data did not have. Kestra explains that her parents served with Data on the Enterprise until he was killed, and that Picard had been the captain – “the greatest Starfleet captain ever”, as her father put it. Soji wonders how Data could be her father, as she had only been created three years before, and then wonders why he would make an android with Human bodily fluids. Kestra remembers that Data wanted to be more Human; he was gifted with incredible strength and intelligence, but he wanted to have dreams, tell jokes, learn how to ballroom dance. She asks if Soji was like that; Soji, tearing up, admits that until Kestra said “android” on the way to the house, she was still clinging to the idea that she was Human. Kestra tells her she thinks she’s “amazing”, partly because of how Human she seems… and partly because, since Soji is only three, Kestra gets to be “the boss”.
As they enter Thaddeus’ room, Picard mentions a language Kestra was speaking, which Troi says is Viveen, spoken by the “Wild Girls of the Woods“. He remembers when he met Thad for the first time – he was no more than five, and speaking an invented language. Troi reminds him that had actually been the second time, as she shows him a picture of the first, of Picard in uniform holding Thad as a baby. His eighteenth birthday would have been the previous week; Kestra still mourned for him, but as each day passed, she came to terms with the loss. Picard promises that as soon as he had a plan, he and Soji would leave. Troi re-emphasizes that he was welcome to stay as long as he needed, but also expressed her worry if something were to happen to Kestra, admitting she was “not as brave” as she once was, which Picard believes to be a sign of wisdom.
Aboard La Sirena, Rios and Musiker detect Narek’s ship tailing them; Rio thinks the ship to be a Romulan “snakehead“, fast and well armed. Rios brings La Sirena to a full stop, hoping that the tail will overshoot them, before setting an alternate course. Jurati speaks up and asks if they actually want to go to Nepenthe, and Musiker reminds her it wasn’t an outing: They were going to rescue Picard and the “synth chick”. Jurati abruptly stands and prepares to leave, at which point Musiker reminds her of when she came aboard the first time, excited to go into space and meet a real, live, synthetic lifeform, but the closer they got to that, the less Jurati wanted to be there. Jurati angrily demands to be taken home to Earth, that Picard could handle himself, and someone else could handle the “fucking synth”, asking why it had to be she who found Soji. Rios tells her that he has a paying client, and that she was just along for the ride, before leaving her in the hands of “Auntie Raffi”, who had anything she needed; Jurati hopefully asks if it was cake.
Back on Nepenthe, Riker checks the wood-burning stove in his backyard as Picard comes out; Picard admits he’s worried about Rios, that he didn’t make it. Riker asks if Picard could tell him what he’d gotten himself into, Picard demurs, saying he didn’t want to involve Riker or his family in his mission, that coming there was a “desperate impulse” he regretted. Riker, somewhat deadpan, remarks that how great it would be if the ignorance of danger was all it took to keep it away from the people they loved, before mentioning the regenerative powers of the soil on Nepenthe, which made the plants there grow like weeds.
Just then, Kestra and Soji come out, conversing in Viveen, which Soji memorized in two minutes from Thaddeus’ dictionary, which was three hundred pages long. Soji appears to be moving in a very “android” way, similar to Data, as Riker introduces himself to her. Picard explains they had served together, to which Soji repeats what Kestra told her about her father calling Picard “the greatest captain ever”. Riker jokingly attributes it to drinking, before sending Kestra to tell her mother to bring more tomatoes. After they leave, Riker begins to lay out what he thinks is going on. Picard is worried about cloaking, which meant Romulans; he was overly worried for their safety, which meant the Tal 44100Shiar; they were after Soji, not Picard; and from the tilting of the head, Soji was an android descended from Data. He comments only half-jokingly on the “classic Picard arrogance”, how he made the decisions about who was in the loop and out of the loop, but while that would work as a starship captain, Riker reminds him he is more or less dealing with a teenager, and that he’s not prepared for it. Picard admits he’s probably not.
In the garden, Troi asks if Soji has ever seen real tomatoes before; Soji admits she’s never had anything that wasn’t from a replicator. Troi offers her a tomato from the garden, and Soji is taken aback at how “real” it tastes. Troi tells Kestra to take the tomatoes to her father and set the table, conversing in another language. Troi explains that it was Harpanthi, spoken by the “Mind Witches of the Southern Ice“, another invention of Thaddeus. Troi explains he created eleven languages – twelve counting Pahlplah, the language of butterflies, which had only wingbeats rather than words.
Thaddeus had been born and raised aboard starships, and was fascinated by the idea of having a homeworld like Betazed and Earth – so he created his own, Ardani, simply meaning “home”. When Thad became sick, they moved to Nepenthe, which became the homeworld he wanted. Troi explains he had contracted mendaxic neurosclerosis, a silicon-based virus which could theoretically be cured using an active positronic matrix, but when Thad contracted the disease, there were no active matrices, and none allowed to be created because of the synth ban. Kestra has told her mother about Soji, how “new” she is; Soji admits she’s only guessing on her age, and that she only knows the Romulans seem to want to find out where she was created. She talks about Narek, how he got her to believe he cared for her, that perhaps he even loved her. Soji then says she can’t trust Troi or Kestra, and especially not Picard, wondering if it was all some kind of trick just like with Narek. Picard walks up and admits it was all an elaborate plot, and that she was right not to trust any of them. Soji angrily shoves him aside and storms off.
Picard takes it as “encouraging” that she didn’t break him in half. Troi bluntly tells Picard he had it coming, that he didn’t take Soji’s feelings into consideration: while he thought the idea of it all being a simulation was preposterous, Soji had no reason to believe that anything was real, not even herself; her ability to trust was a flaw in her programming. Kestra then calls from the oven, which is producing black smoke. As Riker runs to the oven, Troi admonishes Picard that he needs to be himself – compassionate, patient, curious. Picard adds “useful” to that list. Troi asks Picard to let them help, even to pretend the dinner table was his ready room on the Enterprise. Riker then calls out to “cancel red alert“; it was only a burnt tomato. Troi and Picard walk over to join Riker and Kestra for dinner.
Aboard the Artifact, Hugh and Elnor head back to the cube’s queencell. Hugh admits he had been afraid of using its power, but now, angered by the murder of the xBs and his belief that he had failed them, he intends to “take this cube away” from the Romulans forever – which, “Narissa” remarks as she enters, sounded not only like a treaty violation, but open insurrection… of which she was grateful, as that meant she could kill Hugh now. Elnor draws his blade and tells “Narissa” and her guards in Romulan to “choose to live”; in response, “Narissa” opens fire with her disruptor. Elnor easily dispatches the guards with his sword. “Narissa” holsters her disruptor, saying that this was not the way the Zhat Vash fought the Qowat Milat. Elnor sheathes his sword, and engages “Narissa” in hand-to-hand combat. “Narissa” pulls one dagger from her belt, brandishing it at Elnor, while she hurls another into Hugh’s neck. Elnor rushes to Hugh’s side, before angrily pulling the knife from his neck and hurling it at “Narissa”, who escapes via a transporter. With his dying breaths, Hugh tells Elnor he needs an xB to activate the queencell, before thanking him for letting him be a “hopeful fool” again for one brief moment.
Back on La Sirena, Musiker offers Jurati another slice of cake and a glass of chocolate milk; Jurati thanks her for being kind to her, considering her a good person. Musiker admits she’s more like “the wreckage of a good person”, a “temporary good person” in case of emergencies. Jurati begins to break down crying, and Musiker realizes it’s about Maddox. Before they can speak further, Rios tells them their “little shadow” has returned. Just then, Jurati begins vomiting violently, at first what looks to Rios like blood, but which Musiker explains is red velvet.
On Nepenthe, as Riker serves dinner, Picard remains unable to contact Rios, and wonders if he needs another ship. Riker and Troi suggest the spaceport at Infinity Lake, if he’s willing to wait; they had weekly services, but independent contractors were rare. Kestra suggests Captain Crandall and his ship, the Inside Straight, which she admits is somewhat broken – just like Crandall, Riker adds. Even if Picard were to get another ship, Riker wonders where he would go with it. Soji says they would go “home”, explaining how Narek used Zhal Makh to find the planet she was created on. Picard explains that when Dahj first came to him, she had just been activated by the Romulans’ first attempt on her life. Like Soji, she found she had incredible defensive capabilities. He asks her to listen to the timbre of his voice, feel the fluctuations of his heart rate, note the dilation of his pupils… asking her to trust him. Kestra asks if she believes him; Soji admits he believes he’s telling the truth, but that doesn’t mean anything. Picard explains she was created from the remnants of Data, who had given his life to save his, and that was part of the reason he wanted to help her find her home. But mainly, Picard admits that when Dahj found him, he was simply wasting his days at home, not truly living his life; now he had a mission, and no one, not even Soji, could stop him from carrying it out. Soji finally reveals that what she had seen through the skylight during the Zhal Makh, the planet with the electrical storms and two red moons. Riker speculates that this was where Maddox went to restart his research. Kestra tells Soji she has a homeworld. Soji agrees that she does indeed have her own Ardani, and tells Picard she wants to go there. Riker points out the Romulans have a head start, and Troi believes given what the Romulans did to Dahj and attempted to do to Soji, the planet was in danger. Riker suggests that Picard reach out to Starfleet but first Picard has to know where they’re going. Kestra, fiddling with a comm device under the table, reveals she asked Captain Crandall: They’re looking for a planet in the Ghulion system in the Vayt sector, which didn’t have a name, only a number.
Rios takes Jurati to La Sirena‘s sickbay, while Jurati insists she is fine, that she simply ate too much cake. Rios explains he took her aside because the “shadow” keeps tailing them, and he thinks Musiker is being tracked by the Romulans. He points out how suspicious she was acting en route to Freecloud, doing a “goodbye forever” routine… and then came back, no explanation.
Jurati knows she is the one being tracked, not Musiker, but Rios isn’t buying it: Jurati’s been on the ship since they left Earth, so the Romulans could not have put a tracker on her. Just then, Musiker calls Rios back to the bridge: the “shadow” is back.
After Rios leaves, Jurati replicates a dose of noranium hydride, which the computer warns could have neurotoxic effects. She hesitates only for a moment before she puts the hypospray to her neck, then collapses to the deck. La Sirena‘s EMH activates to find her on the floor, foaming at the mouth. Tailing La Sirena aboard his scout ship, Narek curses as he suddenly loses the signal: the noranium hydride has canceled out Jurati’s tracker. The EMH calls Rios to sickbay, as Jurati is now in a coma.
Aboard the Artifact, Elnor observes a comm chip, similar to the one Seven of Nine had given to Picard on the La Sirena, hanging from a console used by Hugh. He uses it to send out an emergency signal to the Fenris Rangers.
On Nepenthe, Picard tells Riker that La Sirena only came into comms range late the previous evening. When asked about the crew, Picard refers to them as “decidedly motley”, and that there had been nothing but drama since they left Earth. Picard asks Riker if he had ever thought of going back to Starfleet; Riker is on active reserve, but admits he would need a good reason. He believes that Picard shouldn’t have retired in the first place, but also says he’d done his fair share of saving planets, and no one would fault him for staying home. Picard gratefully thanks Riker for many things, but foremost for not talking him out of his mission.
Back in the house, Kestra draws a picture of Soji while she sleeps, and both express that they would miss the other after Soji leaves. Kestra admits she doesn’t understand it all, but knows something bad happened to Soji, just as something bad had happened to her. Her parents helped her through it, but Soji didn’t have parents – just Picard. Soji isn’t so sure, but Kestra says they could be there for one another if they wanted.
Picard embraces his old friends as he and Soji prepare to leave, before Kestra runs out and hands Soji the broken compass, saying she only had to pretend it worked. Picard then taps the combadge on his chest, calling for two to beam up.