The sailing ship idyll continues with Picard rhapsodizing about the solitude of the sea, while Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) has an impishly different view (“ bad food, brutal discipline, no women”), until Picard is interrupted by an urgent personal message. This is when we see for certain this is a holdodeck projection, signaling the end of illusion. We see Picard’s devastated reaction to the message, but he keeps it private and returns to the 24th century part of the ship—soon followed by Riker and the rest of the crew, responding to an emergency: a nearby space observatory is under attack.
The Enterprise-D arrives to find the attack on the Amargosa Observatory is over, leaving most aboard dead. One survivor is Dr. Tolian Soran. He claims to have seen nothing, but the Enterprise crew establishes that Romulans attacked the station, searching for something. At this point Soran appears to be a gentle, befuddled scientist. But on the Enterprise, he insists on seeing Captain Picard, to say that he must return to the station to finish an experiment. Picard has been very distracted since the message, and now tries to dismiss Soran’s concerns but Soran stares at him and utters the first of several observations he makes about time. “They say time is the fire in which we burn,” he says. “We leave so many things unfinished in our lives. I know you understand.” Picard looks stricken. We will soon discover why.
(Braga said that he had scoured a book of quotations for observations on time, and he and Moore had wound up modifying or making up their own. The exception, however, is the first ---“Time is a fire in which we burn”--- from the poem by 20th century American poet Delmore Schwartz quoted above, which has other thematic resonance for this film.)
From Guinan, TNG fans knew El Aurians are long-lived--she was visiting earth in the 19th century when she met a time-traveling Picard in one of my favorite TNG two-parters, “Time’s Arrow.” She implied to Data she was there to “listen.” Later in the film, Soran will explain that El Aurians are a race of listeners. In this case, Soran has heard something in Picard that we haven’t learned yet.