When the episode opens our Protostar crew is under attack by both Romulans and the Dauntless, except it’s a simulation. In spite of their best efforts to find a solution, it’s feeling a bit like a Kobayashi Maru situation. Gwyn even suggests it might be time they stop trying to get to Starfleet.
Jankom has a solution to improve their mood: ice cream. Jankom jokes about how Dr. Noum called him short and Gwyn laughs that she’d like to slap her father for all he’s put her through – and shoots whipped cream straight from the can into her mouth. When Dal tries to go to bed, music pipes into his quarters, and it won’t turn off. And Gwyn is trying to do pull-ups, using her heirloom as a pull-up bar between two bunks, when she thinks she sees someone walk by in the corridor.
Jankom is accosted by a small, round animal that glitters and makes kissy lips at him. Rok runs over and knows immediately what this is: the glittersmooch from her holodeck program: Delta Heart: Magical Veterinarian.
They can’t figure out how these things get off the holodeck, but then the entire scenery changes around them and Zero realizes they never left the holodeck at all. They’re now on a misty, rocky shore with a lighthouse. Zero often spends time there. They can hail Janeway but she can’t figure out how to get them out. Subspace interference or something, you know.
While they wait to be rescued Zero suggests that if they solve a mystery the arch may open and let them out. At the stroke of midnight, a bunch of wax-sealed letters come through the door and land at their feet. Dal reads the letter for the Cellar Door Society. Inside the letters seems to be scribbles. Not even Gwyn knows what they mean. But Zero figures out that if they work together and overlay their papers, it forms an image of a skeleton key. If they find it, the holonovel ends.
As they poke around the library to figure out what’s going on, they see a bright light and hear pounding music from outside. They open the door into what’s now a neon-lit back alley, where a bunch of biker Tellarites who all look like Dr. Noum are threatening them. It’s Jankom’s street fighter program that he’s been using to blow off steam.
Jankom shoots a ball of energy at the Noum bikers and starts beating them up. He’s not scared because the safety protocols are on and they shouldn’t be able to get hurt, but when one punches him, he goes flying and loses a tooth. Dal realizes the safeties are off, and calls Janeway for help. She asks for his command codes to resolve the problem. Gwyn and Rok take care of most of the Noums and they disappear. The last one has a tattoo of a skeleton key on his chest. They capture him but the arch doesn’t appear. They look more closely and see next to the tattoo the words “The Key Club.”
Next they find themselves in a black-and-white 1930s program. Another Noum hologram introduces Murf as the night’s featured performer, and he gets up on stage and dances and croons. They are all stunned that Murf can dance and sing…or at least convincingly lip-sync. Oh and another of Rok’s vet patients is there, and the Diviner is the bartender. Gwyn is surprised to see him and realizes his holo must have merged with the others.
Zero and Rok puzzle over why it’s choosing their programs and merging them. Zero wonders whether the holodeck has a motive for trapping them this way. Jankom stumbles into trouble when he opens a briefcase full of what seem to be bars of latinum…in front of a bunch of Noum mobsters.
Listening carefully, Rok realizes the piano has a missing key. She’s about to go investigate when Dal, Gwyn and Jankom run over, away from the mob. They open the top of the piano and it’s a portal! When they all jump down they land on the deck of a pirate ship, and now my brain is full of Prodigy/Our Flag Means Death crossover ideas.
This is Dal’s program, and he’s right at home as pirate captain. He instructs his crew, who are all Dr. Noum in pirate garb and eyepatches, to search for the skeleton key. Just then a giant tentacle reaches up and encircles the mast. But it’s not a monster – it’s another one of Rok’s patients, Sea-Hugger, and it’s going to hug them to death.
A tentacle grabs Jankom and Gwyn goes to save him, but Rok has to figure out how to treat it to get it to stop attacking them. She spots a barrel of oranges and plums and recognizes the Sea-Hugger is malnourished – they fire the barrel into its mouth and it’s happy and goes away.
They get a clue to go to the Delta Heart clinic, but Zero uses their detective powers to realize that the skeleton key is just a distraction from the real mystery of why they’re trapped there in the first place. They deduce that they’re the victim of a calculated attempt to keep them there. “The culprit is on this very ship, and the only way to win is if we refuse to play her game,” declares Zero, and the holoship around them vanishes. They find themselves in the holodeck, now turned off, and Janeway walks in to a group of startled faces.
Janeway denies locking them in and turning off the safety protocols but Zero says it’s possible she’s been manipulated. Zero replays security footage that shows Janeway’s eyes turning red and evil when Gwyn suggested they don’t go to Starfleet. The footage shows Janeway creating the simulation to distract the crew. Dal realizes she needed his command codes to take control of the ship, and we see she set a course for Federation space. Janeway is distraught; she doesn’t remember doing any of this and knows something’s wrong with her. Just then a red alert alarm sounds as they approach the Dauntless. They’re out of the Neutral Zone and locked out of the controls.