The scene opens with a haggard man with long gray hair with his back to the camera, drawing a pattern in the sand. A wave of energy passes through and erases the pattern, and he starts drawing again. The camera angle changes, and we see that it's Chief O'Brien. His drawing is interrupted by a pair of guards entering the room, telling him that he has exceeded the necessary incarceration and must be released. They throw him out of his cell...
...and the scene changes to show him strapped to a table. O'Brien is incredulous when he sees Major Kira, looking the same as she did when he entered the prison, 20 years ago. The guards explain that he's only been in custody for a few hours, that his incarceration has been all in his mind, and that none of what just happened to him was real. "It's real to me, Major," he intones gravely. "It's real to me."
Captain Sisko explains the situation to O'Brien's wife, Keiko: O'Brien had asked too many questions about Argrathi technology, and so they charged him with Espionage and subjected him to the treatment. Keiko asks if the memories are removable, and while Sisko reports that the Argrathi say it's impossible, Sisko reassures her that Dr. Bashir will try. Bashir interviews O'Brien on what he remembers. O'Brien had a cellmate, a man named Ee'char who had already been in the prison for six cycles prior to O'Brien's arrival, but he tells Bashir he was alone. After finishing his assessment, Bashir explains to Keiko that the memories O'Brien received aren't implanted false memories, but that O'Brien actually experienced everything that happened at an accelerated rate and so there isn't anything he can do without wiping everything else from his memory entirely. For a brief moment as he's being reunited with Keiko, he sees her as Ee'char.
O'Brien has a hard time readjusting: He unconsciously saves a portion of his dinner for later, a habit he picked up as a result of the rarity of the guards bringing food. Keiko finds him sleeping on the floor. He sees Ee'char walking through the station while playing darts in Quark's Bar. He's been temporarily demoted until he can get his technical faculties back. When Bashir goes to visit him, we find that he hasn't been seeing the counselor he's supposed to have been seeing three times a week. O'Brien doesn't want to talk about it, he just wants to forget what happened to him and becomes argumentative when Bashir presses the issue.
In a flashback, O'Brien gets into an argument with Ee'char, where he appears to be losing his sanity. After threatening Quark with violence after he doesn't deliver O'Brien's synthale as quickly as he'd like, he has another vision of Ee'char.
Sisko calls O'Brien into his office. Because of the argument with Bashir, the incident with Quark, and his continued refusal to see the counselor, he is relieved of duty and forced to see the counselor daily. O'Brien storms into Bashir's office. As Ee'char appears again, Bashir urges O'Brien to listen to him and accept his help. O'Brien doesn't want Bashir's help; he just wants to be left alone. As he walks through the promenade, the vision of Ee'char says, "You know sooner or later you'll have to tell someone about me." When he gets back to his quarters, Keiko tries to reason with him. His daughter Molly keeps trying to show O'Brien the drawing she made, which sets O'Brien off and makes him nearly hit her before he's stopped by Keiko.
O'Brien, enraged at what he nearly did to his daughter, wrecks the contents of a cargo bay before opening a weapons locker and pointing a phaser at his neck. Bashir comes in and begins talking O'Brien down. O'Brien rationalizes that he's about to kill himself to protect Keiko and Molly and everyone else on the station from the man that he's become after 20 years of prison. Bashir reassures him that O'Brien is still a good, decent man, and O'Brien begins to open up to Bashir about Ee'char.
They were cellmates up until a week before O'Brien was released. The guards had gone longer without giving them food than they ever had before, and Ee'char mused that the guards might have forgotten about them. Later that night, O'Brien wakes to discover that Ee'char had been keeping a secret stash of food from O'Brien. In a rage, O'Brien attacks him - and ends up killing him in the ensuing fight. Compounding his guilt, not only had Ee'char been saving enough food for the both of them, but the guards began feeding him again the next day. He had killed him for nothing.
- "When we were growing up, they used to tell us... humanity had evolved, that mankind had outgrown hate and rage. But when it came down to it, when I had the chance to show, that no matter what anybody did to me, that I was still an evolved human being... I failed. I repaid kindness with blood. I was no better than an animal."
Bashir reassures him:
- ""No. No, no, no. An animal would've killed Ee'Char and never had a second thought, never shed a tear... But not you. You hate yourself.You hate yourself so much you think you deserve to die. The Argrathi did everything they could to strip you of your humanity and in the end, for one brief moment they succeeded. But you can't let that brief moment define your entire life. If you do, if you pull that trigger.. then the Argrathi will have won. They will have destroyed a good man. You cannot let that happen, my friend."
Bashir manages to get the phaser away from O'Brien as Ee'char fades away after gently smiling and telling O'Brien to "Be well."
We then see Bashir discussing the medicine he's prescribed O'Brien. It'll combat the hallucinations and the depression, but not the guilt. That will only take time. He returns to his quarters where he is warmly greeted by Molly.
- Butt-Monkey: It is an O'Brien episode after all.
- Deconstruction / Reality Ensues: This episode has a similar idea as in the TNG episode The Inner Light, but here we actually see how difficult it would be to adjust to your former life after having spent decades inside a simulation. Though like Picard in The Inner Light, O'Brien's still back to his normal self by the next episode.
- Driven to Suicide: To the brink, anyway, before Bashir arrives in time to talk O'Brien down.
- Go Out with a Smile: "Be well, Miles."
- Helpful Hallucination: Rather than blaming Miles for "killing" him, the apparition of Ee'char that keeps appearing to O'Brien is trying to persuade him to let go of his guilt and move on with his life.
- Mauve Shirt: Muniz appears during Miles' first day back at work.
- My God, What Have I Done?: O'Brien after killing Ee'char, as well as yelling at Molly later on.
- Neck Snap: How O'Brien kills Ee'char.
- Posthumous Character: A bizarre example in that technically, Ee'char never existed at all.
- What Are You in For?: Ee'char asks."Let me guess. Sedition?"
- What Beautiful Eyes!: Ee'char notes that O'Brien is calmer when describing Keiko's eyes.
- Whole Plot Reference: O'Brien's wrongful imprisonment is quite similar to that of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, with Ee'Char as his Abbe Faria.
- Year Inside, Hour Outside: O'Brien is put through 20 years of imprisonment in just a few hours.