In which multitools are awesome, Riker gets to shout, and Data is Picard.
Worf giving Geordi crap about his beard at their poker game. Riker gives him encouragement, and Crusher indicates suspicion of men with beards. Worf, Riker, and Geordi are all offended. In Klingon culture, a beard is a sign of courage – in a fight, it gives your enemy a handhold in a fight and shows that you aren’t afraid to give them that advantage. Similarly long hair. Crusher may not be sincere – she raises the stakes – their beards for her hair color. Fortunately for the status quo, the Enterprise arrives at its destination and all hands are called away from the game. You’d think they’d try to schedule it so they wouldn’t be interrupted by something so predictable as an arrival time and staff conference.
The ship is here to check out a Particle Fountain, which is a new type of mining operation which appears to lift the target matter directly from the surface. Geordi and Dr. Farallon argue for a while over engineering minuti and whether Particle Fountains are a useful technology. The downside to that would be that it would put thousands of Horta out of work.
During a power fluctuation, Farallon puts an ‘exocomp’ into a maintenance tube to fix it. Exocomps are tiny autonomous platforms with a replicator in the nose, giving it the ability to create the correct tool for any job. Exocomps – by Black&Decker. They’re so cool that we’re going to immediately forget about this Particle Fountain thing. The good doctor is also an avid studier of Data’s positronic neural network, and keeps up a conversation with him after even Geordi loses interest.
This one is Farallon’s own modification of a common industrial chassis, and Geordi compares it’s processing to Data’s, and favorably. In addition to the replicator creating the correct tool for a job, the Exocomps can also replicate new circuits in their own neural pathways. Farallon, in her briefing to Picard, recommends continuing the use of the Particle Fountain as a blatant MacGuffin to show off the Exocomps.
Data’s a fan of the little guys, at least until one refuses to do the job it was tasked with, to the point of sending feedback to the control pad. Moments later, the task it was sent to accomplish explodes violently. As it turns out, this is a problem Farallon knows about. Occasionally, her exocomps will produce extremely dense clusters of circuit pathways and no longer performs tasks. Geordi makes an offhand comment that twigs Data to the possibility that the Exocomp may be self-aware and value its own existence. Further investigation reveals that the Exocomp has repaired its interface after burning it out deliberately.
Data goes to Crusher to ask her what ‘life’ means. Crusher starts with the broad definition that includes fire and crystal growth and disincludes Data, and eventually gets down to the real question – when did Data transition from an assembly of parts to something ‘alive.’ Of course he’s dead wrong. He’s not alive. He’s just sapient. Misconstruing the famous court case, by believing that the important thing was ‘being alive’ rather than ‘being sapient’ or ‘having a soul.’ Still, it’s very clear where this is going to go.
Later, in the conference room, Data explains his findings – deliberately burning out its interface, and Doctor Farallon is incredibly hostile because of the threat this conference represents to her work. The first test will be to make an Exocomp think its existence is threatened. Of course, the danger is false because subjecting it to real danger would be even more unethical. It seems the Exocomp is going to flee, but then it reconsiders and finishes the repair. Everyone takes this as a sign that it doesn’t posses self-preservation instincts, but Data is unconvinced. It seems he was displaying hope, and indeed his test, once allowed to run its course, shows that the Exocomp performed the requested repair and also turned off the danger simulation.
Back to the particle fountain, Picard is taking a tour and something goes wrong again. They go to evacuate but crisies continue. Geordi goes to rescue one of the scientists and Picard stays too, trapping the both of them. They rush to put up countermeasures and buy themselves 22 minutes to get rescued.
Farallon comes up with the plan of configuring an Exocomp to explode just right, and Data, given his new findings about their sapience, objects. He also reasons that the Exocomps won’t agree to the plan in any case, so Farallon lobotomizes them, and in return Data blocks out the transporter. Riker threatens to relieve Data of duty, and Data continues to insist the Exocomps are life and therefore lobotomizing and murdering them is an illegal orders. He also volunteers to go on a suicide mission, because he has the capacity to make that choice, and Riker offers to reconnect the Exocomp higher functions and explain the problem.
After explaining the problem, the Exocomps don’t shut down, but they do reconfigure their orders and provide a superior solution with superior survivability based on their superior experience with the station. They suck power out of the core sufficient to allow transport, and the Enterprise manages to save two of the exocomps – one stayed behind to hold the door open. This display has convinced Farallon that the Exocomps are worthy of consideration as ethical entities.
The last scene between Data and Picard is pretty great. I won’t spoil it for you.