Captain Picard, while sleeping in his quarters on the Enterprise after the successful completion of a mission, is abducted by an unknown device and finds himself in a cell with three other prisoners: Starfleet Cadet Haro from Bolius IX, the philosopher Kovar Tholl from Mizar Two, and the violent Esoqq from Chalnoth. While they have meager beds and facilities, their only source of nutrition is provided by a tasteless rubbery disk, which they find Esoqq is unable to eat and would likely consider Tholl a good meal. Picard attempts to learn why the four of them have been abducted but can find no connection. Picard organizes Haro and Esoqq to attempt to break the lock on the only door to the cell. Initially foiled by a stun beam when they tamper with the controls, they manage to override the beam and then defeat the door's security, only to find a blank wall behind it.
Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, a doppelgÃ¤nger of Picard has taken his place, ordering the ship to travel slowly at half-impulse speed to a pulsar. En route, Picard's double exhibits behavior that the senior crew begins to question, such as his newfound romance for Dr. Crusher or engaging the crew in singing Heart of Oak, the official march of the Royal Navy, in Ten Forward. When, upon arrival at the pulsar, Picard's double orders the ship closer which would expose the crew to lethal radiation, Riker and the rest of the bridge crew refuse to follow his orders and mutiny.
The real Picard, after discovering the false door, deduces that Cadet Haro is not who she claims to be due to her knowledge of classified details. Haro reveals herself to be an alien species, and that he and his comrades were studying the concept of authority. The four different alien captives provided the perfect way to do this: Tholl (the collaborator who goes along with whoever's in charge), Esoqq (typical for his species, a violent anarchist who rejects any kind of authority), Haro (the Cadet, sworn to obey orders without question), and Picard (the leader, accustomed to giving orders). The aliens quickly return Picard and the other captives to their respective locations. On the Enterprise, Picard's double is also revealed to be of the same alien species. Before the aliens can leave the Enterprise, Picard orders a force field to hold them, and then, after seeing how they react to being ensnared, allows them to go free, warning them not to abduct others again.