Wendl sat for days staring at the eye of that storm. It consumed him. He wouldn't speak. He didn't touch his food. It was as if that dense ring of clouds told him everything he needed to know about the planet, and about the people we had come so far to meet. By the time we achieved orbit, he was too weak to walk. All he could think of doing was making some readings to confirm his worst fears. Once he'd done that, he just fell to pieces. The best the team's doctor could do was to keep him drugged, and to surround him with the comforting images and sounds of home. But now, even that was wearing thin.
The animals, which had scattered at their arrival, were venturing closer at night now, and the team were comparing notes about them over tea after dinner. The bravest of them was a cat, one with patches of different colored fur. After offering it several kinds of food to learn what it liked and to earn its trust, the group decided to adopt the animal. Inevitably, it needed a name, and the one that stuck was Rumbly, because of its prodigious purr.
Irran was idly petting the cat a few days later when Kharlin approached. "It's finished," she said excitedly. "The translation's complete."
He slowly raised his gaze. "I'm not so sure I want to hear it, to be perfectly honest."
Kharlin nodded, and gently sank to a crouch on the other side of the cat. "Why not?"
"I've been thinking about Wendl" and about that storm. It's like the people here had all taken part in a ritual suicide."
She winced. "Surely not all of them. After all, it was the leaders who gave the orders in the end. Most of the people probably didn't have a clue what was about to happen."
"Sure," he said, nodding, "but how did those people get to be leaders? One way or another, it had to be with the cooperation of the masses, even if it's only that they didn't object strongly enough."
"I see where you're coming from with that, but there's no reason to believe that the people on this planet understood reality the same way we do. You saw all the religious iconography at the other sites. It was as prevalent in the self-proclaimed secular cultures as it was in the overtly religious ones. The only difference I noticed was whether it was expressed as a regional monoculture or as a patchwork of interpenetrating enclaves. I think the people here were so caught up in their competing narratives that they never looked behind the set dressing to see what reality was all about."
Rumbly yawned at length. After a moment, she rose, looked at Irran briefly, and wandered off.
"Like that cat," he said, watching it creep up on an unsuspecting bit of fluff. "It was content to sit here as long as I was petting it, but lost interest in my company soon after I stopped. People are like that, too. All that's different is what it takes to keep their interest."
"Mmmm. You said you were thinking about Wendl?"
"The only thing that kept him together as long as he did was his preoccupation with that storm."
She looked away and muttered, "the Eye of God."
"That's what they all started calling it near the end. While the climatologists were screaming bloody murder over the implications, the various sects were using it to trumpet the alleged truth of their respective end-of-the-world narratives, the business interests were trying to figure out how to make a profit out of it, a dozen militaries wanted to use it as a weapon, and everyone else was doing their best to make believe it hadn't happened."