The film begins in what appears to be a battle which is going badly for the Federation ship involved. As the action ends in destruction for the ship and its crew, it is revealed that this is a simulation at Star Fleet Academy to test its trainees, called the Kobayashi Maru. The test is being overseen by Admiral James T. Kirk, and he is challenged by Lt. Saavik, who was commanding the simulated ship. She indignantly says that it wasn't a fair test of her abilities, because there was no way to win. Kirk tells her that a no-win situation is something that any captain may face, and that how someone faces death is at least as important as how they face life. Afterwards, Spock, who is training the cadets, meets with Kirk and gives him a birthday present: an antique copy of A Tale of Two Cities. Kirk opens the book and reads the line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." and asks Spock if there was a message in this gift. Spock says none except "Happy birthday... surely the best of times."
While they're on board, Spock offers to have his cadets take them out on a training run. While they're out and about, Kirk receives an incoming message from Carol Marcus. She demands to know why he's taking the Genesis project away from her. Kirk naturally has no idea what she's talking about, and can't get any answers, because the transmission is breaking up, and he loses the connection. As it turns out, Khan is jamming the signal.