Adira Tal observes the crew of the USS Discovery chatting amongst themselves during the memorial service for Philippa Georgiou. Paul Stamets approaches them and tells Adira that they are a part of the crew, and that they have Stamets and Hugh Culber as quasi-parental figures as well. Adira is startled when the manifestation of Gray Tal, who has not appeared to them for some time, appears and states that they “has [him], too.” Stamets, addressing what appears to him like empty space, briefly chastises Gray for not speaking to Adira for so long and leaves them alone. Gray explains that he feels stuck since he cannot interact with the real world. Adira says they understand and that they will figure out their situation.
Adira and Gray are interrupted when the computer informs Stamets that it has found a lifesign aboard the KSF Khi’eth, the Kelpien vessel signalling from the Verubin Nebula. The crew is surprised since the crash happened some 125 years prior and the nebula’s radiation should have proven deadly. However, the survivor is not Dr. Issa, explains Captain Saru; red marks on her forehead in the recorded distress signal were not radiation burns, as Sylvia Tilly had thought, but rather signs of pregnancy.
Discovery uses its spore drive to jump to the crash site inside the nebula. The ship battles ionizing radiation and turbulence rock the ship, reducing shield strength significantly, but Saru orders Discovery forward despite the danger. Cleveland Booker offers to take his much smaller vessel in to scout as it can navigate the spatial storm better than the larger Discovery. Saru approves and R.A. Bryce transports him to his vessel, which immediately departs the shuttlebay while Discovery jumps back outside the nebula.
Book reports finding a subspace fissure that will allow him to complete his scan for the lifesign. Book’s ship, using its morphological capabilities, navigates the turbulent nebula, but the computer reports a radiation breach and Book notices he is bleeding. He reports finding the approximate crash site as his ship’s emergency forcefields begin to fail and radiation reaches critical levels. Book fights off disorientation to report that he has found the lifesign inside a structure with a breathable atmosphere, which he assumes is the crashed Khi’eth. He sends Discovery coordinates where it can jump into a stable pocket of space but is clearly in physical distress. His vessel returns to Discovery on autopilot and Culber reports that Book will recover after a few cycles of DNA recombination.
Tilly reports to Saru and Michael Burnham that data collected by Book’s ship shows that the Khi’eth crashed into a massive deposit of dilithium and that there is dilithium dispersed throughout the entire planet. Noting that they were led here by data from the black boxes and from Ni’Var, Burnham speculates that the planet could be the source of the Burn.
Appearing via holographic projection, Admiral Charles Vance celebrates the discovery of a vast quantity of dilithium as a resource for the Federation. Saru reports that conditions inside the crashed ship appear safe enough to beam in and locate the surviving Kelpien. Saru reveals he will accompany the away team, leaving acting first officer Tilly in command, though Vance appears nervous about the arrangement.
Vance also asks whether Discovery is safe there given the potential connection to the Burn. Saru replies that should such a phenomenon occur again, distance would not matter. He also indicates the crew of the Khi’eth was unlikely to have been behind the Burn; they were Federation scientists, he argues, and the surviving child would have been very young at the time. Vance reveals he has sent part of the fleet to Kaminar, where the Emerald Chain has been conducting some sort of military exercise. Saru offers to jump there immediately, but Burnham notes Osyraa used Book’s brother Kyheem to draw him back to Kwejian. Vance says she does appear to be luring Discovery, and Tilly remarks it is to obtain the spore drive. Vance promises to protect Kaminar and orders them to find the lifesign and figure out how to obtain the rich deposit of dilithium.
In sickbay, Dr. Tracy Pollard and Book approach Burnham, who is holding a meowing Grudge in her arms. Book and Burnham briefly flirt before Pollard reports that DNA recombination on both Book and Grudge was successful following their trip through the nebula.
Book says he noticed she is favoring her front left paw and Pollard agrees to examine her further. In the corridor, Book remarks that the dilithium deposit could greatly benefit planets cut off from the rest of the galaxy by the fuel’s shortage. Burnham says she will go with Saru and Culber to the ship but is worried about what Saru will do if faced with a difficult choice. She also remarks that she hopes whatever answers they find on the surface are satisfactory.
In engineering, with Adira and Gray observing from a distance, Stamets protests Culber’s inclusion on the away team, worried about the radiation and citing Culber’s relationships with himself and Adira. Culber, however, says he must go; he felt lost since being resurrected from the mycelial network, but traveling to the future has given him new purpose. Stamets assents, and Culber promises to keep communications open during the mission.
In their quarters, Burnham reassures Tilly about taking command of the ship for the first time. Burnham reveals there is a metal burr under the left armrest of the captain’s chair. It was present on the USS Shenzhou as well due to a construction glitch at the San Francisco Fleet Yards. The late Captain Philippa Georgiou would press her thumb into it to stay “in the moment” during tough situations. But Burnham said that when she first sat in the chair and felt for it, all she could find was a dent where Georgiou had worn down the burr. Burnham has seen Saru touch the same spot on Discovery, leaving it available to Tilly as well. They embrace, and Tilly urges her to watch the radiation levels.
Discovery jumps to the stable pocket, where it hangs safely, although its shields are slowly being affected. Culber reports that anti-radiation medication the away team took will help protect them, as will boosters being taken with them. However, they have no more than four hours before they must be back in sickbay. Tilly reports that the ship’s shields will be repaired in three hours, at which time it will jump back to the stable pocket. The away team beams away and Tilly takes the captain’s chair, subtly feeling for the burr before jumping the ship back out of the nebula.
Below, Burnham rematerializes and is shocked to find herself in a winter landscape. Her uniform has changed into a red riding hood and she bears Trill spots. Culber materializes next to her; he too is re-dressed in a silver coat and has the outward appearance of a Bajoran, including the traditional earing. Saru approaches on foot and says he is surprised to feel his heel touch the ground; he is now wearing a gray coat and has the appearance of a human with dark hair. All three are bewildered.
Staring up at a night sky with two visible moons, Burnham questions where they are. Culber notes that they must be on the ship, as they would be dead already had they accidentally landed on the planet itself. They discover they are without badges to contact Discovery and that their tricorders, phasers and other supplies are also gone.
Burnham theorizes they could be inside some advanced holoprogram that could simply be masking their supplies’ presence. However, Saru’s efforts to deactivate it via vocal commands prove fruitless.
They do not know if Discovery can still hear them, though Culber says if it returns on schedule they will become sick but can live.
The trio are distracted by a female voice explaining the function of a replicator. They find a glitchy Starfleet hologram explaining replicator repair in the middle of the forest. Saru inquires about the distress call, but the hologram redirects them elsewhere. Burnham notes the computer sees them as part of the program, explaining their changed appearances. She asks about the holo-environment’s purpose, and the hologram says it is a training program before glitching and deactivating. Over a century of radiation has damaged the program. Burnham notes a structure in the distance, but Saru urges caution, warning that the rest of the training program may not be innocuous.
Inside, they find the computer has changed their clothing again into less bulky versions. They find a vast but crumbling stone structure, and Saru reports anxiety at the height.
Burnham reports it appears to be a stepwell, which pre-warp civilizations used for irrigation. In the stormy skies above, giant creatures float languidly. Culber spots a well-protected door while Burnham guesses that surrounding stone structures appear to be a ritual of some kind. They spy what they believe to be another hologram, but find instead an elderly Kelpien who asks what program they are from. Suddenly, the chain door rattles. Saru explains they came in response to Issa’s distress call. The Kelpien is shocked to hear they came from outside the program, but flees when the door rattles open, crying that they “woke the monster.” Burnham, however, says the door unlocked from the outside as soon as the Kelpien became scared. Culber notes the monster must be some sort of hologram while Burnham ponders if the survivor is even aware of the outside world’s existence or the Burn. Culber posits he may have the mind of a child and should be treated carefully. Saru and Culber leave to find the survivor while Burnham remains behind to ensure the creature stays in its room.
On Discovery, Stamets coordinates shield repairs, ordering power diverted from backup systems. Adira reports that three shield generators are too damaged to take the charge. Over comms, they hear Burnham report finding something and growling, but the away team is unresponsive. On the bridge, Tilly directs Stamets to take all the power he needs to repair shields so Discovery can retrieve the away team. Joann Owosekun reports a ship approaching on long-range sensors. It is Federation, surprising the crew, who surmise it could be a ship stranded that far out for more than a century by the Burn. The ship, ten minutes out, does not respond to hails, but sends the correct response codes, Bryce reports.
Saru and Culber discover a holo-recording of the day Kaminar joined the Federation. Culber attempts to interact with them and a glitchy Vulcan hologram identifies them as “rescuers” and says that “the child” has been waiting for rescue for 125 years, 3 months, 17 days and 4 hours. Culber questions how the program kept him alive for so long, especially given the radiation. The glitching hologram replies that it changed their appearance because they were the first sentient life the survivor will have seen. Saru asks where “the child” is.
Meanwhile, Burnham searches for the monster. Holding a rock as a weapon, she enters what appears to be a hastily abandoned living area and finds the being, a smoky humanoid mass with tendrils. Burnham is startled but studies it and slowly lowers the rock, introducing herself and questioning it cautiously. The creature only moans and begins chasing her through the stepwell. Burnham falls from a staircase and screams as she instead falls upward.
Owosekun reports the unknown Federation vessel will arrive in two minutes. There are no class M planets within five lightyears, and Book notes if it were a stranded ship it presumably would have sought out a new home ages ago. Tilly orders Owosekun to scan the area around the ship, and she finds nonsensical neutrino emissions. Tilly realizes it is not a Federation ship; it is Osyraa, the only person who wants both *Discovery’*s spore drive and a dilithium planet enough to travel so far.
Osyraa’s cruiser arrives, sending Discovery into red alert. Book says she must have used an old transwarp tunnel that is on courier maps but would not be used by anyone “in their right mind.” They cannot jump away, as they must remain nearby to protect the away team. Tilly orders Discovery to cloak, though the ship won’t be able to jump while hidden; Osyraa’s ship cloaks as well. Nervous, Tilly rubs the burr.
Burnham awakens in a chamber with the surviving Kelpien, who asks if she is a program. She responds that she is, exciting him as he has completed all the programs and did not think he would find a new one. Burnham, improvising, says she will teach him the dynamics of social interaction in preparation for one day meeting other sentient species. The survivor says there used to be more holograms to teach him about “the Outside” but that it never came, but agrees to discuss social units with Burnham.
Saru and Culber, searching for the survivor, come across a hologram of a Kelpien village elder, who used to pass along history via stories, though they never survived to the hologram’s apparent advanced age. They find a novice painting of a group of Kelpiens signed “Su’Kal,” which Saru surmises is the survivor’s name. It translates roughly as “beloved gift” and is a name traditionally given to the first birth in a family after it has suffered great tragedy, to symbolize the end of suffering. They question the elder hologram about Su’Kal’s whereabouts, but it responds only that it is programmed to teach Kelpien and Ba’ul traditions and provide support for the child. It also reveals they entire program was created by Issa, who knew she was dying.
Burnham probes Su’Kal’s knowledge of his family. He recalls harvesting kelp in the water and enjoying the smell, but says the harvesting environment is no longer functional. Burnham presses him to recall a time before the holoprogram, but the distressed Su’Kal futilely asks the computer to reset parameters. Burnham plays along, pretending to reset. She asks him where the exit for the holoprogram is, again distressing Su’Kal, who leaves. Burnham looks at the back of her hand, which is turning black from radiation exposure.
Culber notices the same burns on his hands and urges Saru to complete the mission. The elder tells them the Su’Kal goes to his “fortress” when afraid, and Culber departs to find it. The elder sings a lullaby to Saru, who thinks of Kaminar. In the elder’s book, he sees a depiction of a Kelpien and Ba’ul next to the totems they discovered outside the locked door. Neither Su’Kal nor the away team can leave until Su’Kal faces his greatest fear, the elder reveals. Saru finds Culber, who notes the radiation is affecting him now as well. They approach the fortress, which juts out over stormy seas.
On Discovery, Book posits that Osyraa must have found a way to track their spore jumps and that she refrained from firing on them immediately because her plan somehow requires the ship. Stamets reports Discovery cannot jump for another 30 minutes as Osyraa hails, and Tilly directs the shields repaired in just ten minutes.
Osyraa is amused to find Tilly in command and says she must feel like a fraud, although Tilly replies that Osyraa is likely projecting her own feelings about herself. Osyraa says she wants Discovery, its spore drive and crew for “leverage.”
Burnham watches Su’Kal construct another talisman. Culber and Saru arrive and identify the holographic monster as the one from Su’Kal’s story. It attacks Su’Kal, creating a spatial disturbance that expands outward from the planet and briefly reveals the locations of the cloaked ships. In engineering, Stamets orders Jett Reno to lock down the warp core’s magnetic constrictors and Adira to purge the dilithium chamber. The dilithium is being destabilized by the disturbance as Discovery and the Viridian both lose their cloaks. Tilly orders weapons ready.
Discovery and the Viridian stare each other down, though the Starfleet vessel’s shields are only at 54 percent. Tilly orders Stamets to prepare to jump to safety as she cannot allow Discovery to fall into Osyraa’s hands, though Stamets protests abandoning Culber and the away team. Adira and Gray share a knowing look and step away. On the bridge, Book volunteers to retrieve the team on his ship. Stamets angrily prepares to jump in the spore cube as Adira tells Reno they have a plan to save the away team but that they need Reno’s badge.
Saru sings the Kelpien lullaby to Su’Kal, who is calmed by it, pushing away the monster. Saru is surprised when Su’Kal walks away.
Bryce reports the disturbance from the planet has stopped and that Osyraa is again hailing. Tilly asks to be informed as soon as Book’s ship clears the shuttlebay. Tilly and Osyraa verbally spar and the Emerald Chain leader tells her the structural weakness exploited by Discovery during their last encounter has since been fixed.
Noting the ship has not simply jumped away, Osyraa questions if Saru is in the nebula. Book’s ship clears the shuttlebay and Tilly immediately orders a jump, but before Stamets can execute the jump, Emerald Chain agents beam into the spore cube and attack him.
Meanwhile, tendrils extend from Osyraa’s ship, enveloping Discovery. Emerald Chain soldiers appear throughout the ship, holding the crew at gunpoint.
Book navigates through the nebula and arrives around the planet. Finally able to contact the away team, he warns them not to let the disturbance happen again as it nearly caused another Burn. Burnham questions how Su’Kal could have caused the Burn, and Culber replies that his body must have adapted to the subspace radiation and dilithium while forming in utero. Something must have happened when he was a child to upset him and cause the first Burn. Book tells them to meet at the rendezvous point quickly because Osyraa is attacking. Saru asks Burnham to stay to help prevent Su’Kal from causing another Burn. But Burnham insists Saru must stay given his connection to Su’Kal. Saru insists he must confront Osyraa as captain and will not allow himself to be distracted, but Burnham says he already has. Culber says he will also stay as he knows what it feels like to be alone in a world that does not make sense. Burnham says she will return for both of them, but Culber says if more than a day passes, there will be no point.
Book, waiting for the away team, is surprised to find Adira aboard his ship. They say they are beaming down to deliver much-needed medication so they can survive until Discovery returns. They place the medicine inside their mouth and beam down, to Book’s frustration.
Book beams a weakened Burnham aboard and gives her medicine, though she is still dangerously radioactive. Burnham says they will have to return for the others and will explain on the way back to Discovery, and Book tells her that Adira just beamed down with radiation pills.
On Discovery, a soldier places a crown-shaped piece of technology on Stamets’ head, forcing him into a cooperative state to operate the spore drive.
On the bridge, Osyraa and many soldiers beam aboard, immediately capturing the crew and taking their badges. Osyraa forcibly removes Tilly from the captain’s chair and orders Keyla Detmer to take her hands off the helm.
Osyraa sits, notes the coordinates for Federation headquarters are already set and asks what they say when they do their “jumpy thing.” Book and Burnham emerge from the nebula just in time to watch Discovery, with the Viridian attached, jump away. “We’re too late,” Burnham says.