As the episode begins, the Enterprise is conducting a routine survey mission along the edge of Cardassian space when a Cardassian warship unexpectedly attacks. Reacting quickly, Captain Picard defends his ship and forces the Cardassian vessel to stand down. The Cardassian commander, Gul Macet, tells Picard that he attacked because a Federation starship destroyed a Cardassian science station without provocation two days earlier. Picard asks for an hour's truce so that he can confirm this with Starfleet.
Starfleet Admiral Haden confirms the Cardassian claims, telling Picard that the starship USS Phoenix, under the command of Captain Benjamin Maxwell, was responsible for the attack, adding that the ship has gone on silent running and wonât answer communiquÃ©s. The Enterprise is ordered after Maxwell and is instructed to preserve the peace no matter what the cost. Picard takes along a delegation of Cardassian observers as a show of good faith.
Since transporter chief Miles OâBrien served with Maxwell on the USS Rutledge, Picard invites him to attend a meeting with the Cardassians in the briefing room. OâBrien finds that he still harbors some resentment toward the Cardassians. Picard asks OâBrien if it is true that Maxwellâs family were killed by Cardassians while OâBrien served with Maxwell; Macet immediately jumps to the conclusion that Maxwell must be acting out of vengeance, which OâBrien rejects.
The Enterprise locates the Phoenix on long-range sensors and Picard orders an intercept course. Chief Operations Officer Data reports that Maxwell is pursuing a Cardassian supply ship, but the Enterprise is too far away to intercede. Picard provides the precise location of the Phoenix to a Cardassian warship which is closer; unfortunately, the tactically skilled Maxwell destroys both ships, killing over 650 Cardassians.
When the Enterprise and the Phoenix finally rendezvous, Maxwell beams aboard. Seeing OâBrien, he greets his former officer warmly. Maxwell tells Enterprise first officer Commander William Riker that OâBrien was the best tactical officer he had ever had.
Maxwell explains to Picard that his attack was justified because the Cardassians are rearming, adding that the âscience stationâ was actually a military supply depot in a strategic location. He also claims that the Cardassian supply ships are a sham for transporting arms. Picard condemns Maxwellâs actions and informs him that both ships are to return to Federation space at once, generously allowing Maxwell the dignity of retaining command during the return voyage. Maxwell returns to his ship.
In close formation, the two ships begin their journey, but the Phoenix quickly alters course and accelerates away. Picard orders a pursuit course, but the Enterprise is unable to catch the Phoenix before it intercepts another Cardassian supply ship. As the Enterprise approaches the scene, Data observes that his sensors are unable to read the contents of the supply ship, as it is running a high-powered subspace field. Maxwell hails Picard and tells him that if he will board the supply ship, he will have all the proof he needs. Picard refuses and Maxwell threatens to destroy it. OâBrien then asks Picard if he may transport over to the Phoenix, explaining that Maxwell may listen to him. (O'Brien, having intimate knowledge of the workings of his former ship's transporters, is able to find a "gap" in the ship's shields and transport himself through).
Once aboard the Phoenix, OâBrien gently convinces Maxwell that Picard is just as determined as Maxwell and will fire on a fellow Starfleet vessel if necessary. They talk about the old days aboard the Rutledge during the Cardassian war, and sing a fellow Rutledge crewmember's favorite song, âThe Minstrel Boy,â an ancient Irish war song. Finally accepting that there is no way he can win, Maxwell turns the Phoenix over to his first officer and transports aboard the Enterprise.
In his debriefing with Picard and Gul Macet, OâBrien states that while he realizes what Maxwell did was terribly wrong, he is still proud to have served with him.
After O'Brien is dismissed, Macet tells Picard that OâBrienâs loyalty is admirable, though misplaced. Picard disagrees, saying that Macetâs people have much to learn about humans, as such loyalty doesnât come easily. He adds that although Maxwellâs tribulations affected his judgment, his heroic service wonât be dismissed.
As Macet turns to leave, Picard tells him that he and the Federation know that Maxwell was right - it is no coincidence that the putative supply ships were rigged to jam Federation sensors - and adds that the strategically placed âresearchâ station was not in a locale conducive to scientific investigation. Picard states that while his orders were to preserve the treaty, he also personally believes that maintaining the peace is in the best interests of both sides. Macet appears genuinely taken aback by this accusation, and Picard sternly tells him to pass along to his superiors that the Federation will be watching.