"All right," said Agent Henrik Clerf, his tone solemn. "I am ready."
"Then," said the smooth Oxford-voice beside him, "we hover - and we listen."
Clerf flicked a control. "Done. I'm listening." He glanced at his companion, at whose direction he had just established a parking orbit around Dione.
The creature balanced on the co-pilot's seat could not sit; it had no joints. In shape rather like an upturned Wellington boot covered with shaggy wool, it could only hop and spring onto human furniture. But its limitations were more apparent than real. Void of external feature, it yet strained forward as if vigilant with an eyeless stare.
The lords of Mimas were respected for their wisdom, their linguistic accomplishments and their senses of perception. A novice Terran Intelligence Agency operative could not but feel honoured by Hriri's presence.
As for why a Mimantean should wish to accompany a novice agent on his first mission - well, a reason must exist, but was shrouded in a not unexpected secrecy. The need-to-know principle was as old as the idea of a secret service.
Henrik was happy to start his career on a low rung; happy to be here at all. This, he thought, is life! Hovering in space fifty miles above Dione in a flying saucer!
That antique phrase was dear to his young heart. A classic-film buff, he doted on ancient movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. To him it was a cause for celebration that the actual builders of most modern spacecraft had seen fit to conform to the saucer design, whose practical advantages, by a stroke of luck, chimed in wonderful agreement with Henrik's fondness for the style...
Then came the moments he knew he would never forget. A sound, from he knew not where, began to skewer his eardrums:
Whatever future missions he might carry out (assuming he survived this one), nothing would equal the pristine thrill of today's event. In a state of humble joy he awaited whatever crumb of meaning might dribble his way from the alien four-beat rhythm, which certainly wasn't being produced from anywhere inside his small vessel, nor was it coming through the radio; it seemed, impossibly, to be throbbing out of space itself, doubtless via one of those local physical laws that beset the Saturn system; and he, Henrik Clerf, was privileged to experience the anomaly.
...goa-gor-RIPP-zak... the beat thudded on.
"Keep your eyes on the window," murmured the Minantean.
Henrik gave a start; perhaps, he thought, my lids were drooping a bit; he shook his head and told himself, concentrate on reality, on the wonderful actual Universe visible through the windows adorning the 360-degree circumference of his spacecraft: especially the grey-white veined marble of Saturn's fourth moon, that hung invitingly in space as if within arm's reach of the pilot chair...
Diameter: 697 miles. Surface area: 1.53 million square miles; what you'd get if you added together Argentina, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark. Atmosphere: too thin to be breathable by humans, but quite sufficient for its few hundred inhabitants: the tough, truncated-pyramid-shaped wheeled beings who skated in slow, mysterious formation over the icy plains and apparently drew sustenance from the ground or the ether, or both. Not much had been discovered about their culture. They travelled only rarely to their neighbour moons, and in common with other denizens of the Saturn system they appeared to have no interest at all in the cosmos which lay outside it. All the intelligences of Ekalap - the realm of the Ringed Planet and its moons - believed that their own "universe" furnished sufficient range and wonder to last them till the end of time. And who would wish to contradict them? Certainly not the people of Earth. In particular the TIA was more than happy that the mighty Saturnian bloc showed no urge to expand or to seek the hegemony which (so men suspected) they might easily attain. More than happy, in fact, that Ekalap chose to ignore Earth...
Yet, inconsistent with the above data, was one gritty datum recently acquired by the Terran authorities:
Some folk on Dione have sent us a call for help...
...goa-gor-RIPP-zak...the third element in the beat grew louder or deeper, and now it began to be accompanied by a visual effect. The orb beyond the window was flickering. "Believe what you see," advised the Mimantean, "for your life will depend on it."
Obediently the Terran trusted to his eyes. Keeping them focused upon the increasingly shimmering satellite, he recalled another of the Mimantean's cryptic remarks: Just as your God is said to 'temper the wind to the shorn lamb', so the forces that jostle among the worlds of Ekalap are apt to nudge mercifully the occasional innocent traveller. But you have to co-operate. You have to believe.
Well, he supposed - he could only smile and hope - that he did possess some suitable quality for the job he'd been sent to do.
But now the four-note beat swelled into a roar, in which the third note became dominant both in noise and in brighter accompanying flashes. Until suddenly -
The noise and the flashes ceased, and the world beyond the window appeared transformed, no longer a veined marble sphere, but a gorgeous blue ball. Henrik gasped.
Hriri's shaggy brow rocked sideways against him. "Snap to it! We must go down!"
"But - what - "
"You're doing well. Keep in time with the Third Beat. Never mind how you're doing it - you're doing it. So. What you're seeing is Dione's troposphere, which is about eighty miles deep. The pressure at the surface is about three times Earth-normal but that's not too intense for a healthy fellow like you. The main thing is, you'll be able to breathe it safely. And it's reasonably warm from the bsoo effect, the three-grav microflames. Now let us go down!"
Henrik listened to the jargon and the exhortation with one part of his mind while he attended to the ship's controls; the saucer began the descent from orbit and spiralled down towards the surface of the incredibly bright, blue little world.
In the first spare moment he asked:
"The version of Dione we thought we knew - it was, I suppose, an illusion?"
"There is no such thing as illusion."
"Please, Hriri, let's not quibble. I need to get this straight before we touch down. If not 'illusion', then an alternate world. We've skipped dimensions - right?"
"You know better than that." The plummy Oxford voice flowed more incongruously than ever from the mouthless upturned-boot shape of the Mimantean. "Reality is all one."
"I know better, do I? Look, come on," Hinrik's voice became grimmer, "we've only got minutes before touch-down - "
"You know more than you realize," said Hriri. "That's why I recommended you for this job."
Henrik was silent. He did not wish to get into a fruitless discussion about what the Mimantean sage might mean by "know". Probably, he guessed, it was some abstruse allusion to temperamental suitability. Too late to map it out now. Doubtless, in one's dealings with the oracular sages of Mimas, it was always too late to catch up with the the insights; however (thought Henrik with a resigned shrug) it ought to remain possible - from within the fog of a mere Terran brain - to choose how to act.
The view of Saturn and the starry sky had disappeared, and the windows showed a featureless blue glow; the saucer, nearing its goal, sank through dense atmosphere. Henrik was relieved to note that the thick blue air did not hide, though it tinted, the rising features of the landscape.
Details emerged against the bluish grey ground: its flecks of red and green became identifiable as vegetal pavilions on oblique, wide-straddled stilts, which allowed through-ways underneath and between. Some cracks in the ground might be artificial fissures or natural rilles, crossed by plentiful bridges. A mound of complication, briefly glimpsed before it receded over the curve of the world, had the size, dignity and regularity of a city. As the ship lost more altitude
a very few dots, about five or six, which might be native wheelers, could be seen in motion, till the field of view narrowed and, like the city, they vanished beyond the horizon's tightening noose.
Henrik would have preferred more time to digest all this, but he had about a minute in which to examine the scene in detail from the air before the vessel touched down on a flat area surrounded by some of the "pavilions". They stood ranged against that almost dizzily close horizon which hugged any small moon.
"And now I suppose we signal the Dioneans," he said to Hriri. "And they send emissaries... No?"
"You are making assumptions, Hinrik," chided the other in a softly amused tone. "Let us first go outside."
Almost, the Terran agent grumbled at last. But he pressed the button that opened the locks and extended the ramp. The denser Dionean air wafted in; he whiffed its high oxygen content but made no comment and, without further preparation, walked down to the moon's surface.
His boots scrunched on the pebbly ice, interrupting an eerie, whining silence. He halted and listened carefully, but sensed only his cheeks being stroked in the bland breeze of the heavy air. Turning, he set off to stride around the ship, and as he did so he experienced the swaying sensation a walker must feel on the smaller Saturnian moons, where the force known as "gravity-three" cleaves close to the surface and diminishes sharply with every yard of altitude, so that your lower legs are the heaviest part of you, while your upper body, comparatively, floats at anchor.
On all sides of the ship, the views showed him no sign of any native, no movement at all except the to-and-fro sway of vegetal pavilions, a furlong away and more.
He guessed he now understood the reason for Hriri's dampener on the idea of "signalling the Dioneans". Of course, the natives were not going to risk breaking radio silence, any more than he himself could have risked landing his ship in full view of their city. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that his instructions for this mission were oddly casual. It was as if the Terran authorities were reluctant to get involved, though unwilling to give a flat refusal to the distress call.
Oh well, nothing for it but to sneak around on foot... "I've got the bearing of the city," he said to Hriri. "We'll descend into that rille," he pointed, "and keep under cover. Might as well set off now."
"You set off," the Mimantean replied. "I have other things to do. I may re-join you later."
A pang of disappointment robbed Henrik of speech for a few moments. But then he smiled wryly at himself. He had, a short while ago, felt some annoyance at being "nursemaided" by his high-status companion. Well, he could not have it both ways - helpful guidance and solitary independence.
"What are you going to do?" He felt he had the right to ask this.
"Physics," the Mimantean replied. "The local laws of Ekalap are a long way from being completely mapped, and this little world has force-contours enough to keep me busy for a lifetime. But don't worry, we can keep in touch. The invaders won't have cracked our scrambler code yet."
Ceremonious farewells were not in Hriri's line, Henrik knew, so he turned his back on his ex-companion and set off towards the nearest rille that promised to lead in the direction of the city.
I'm on my own. I don't know enough; but no agent ever knows enough. A mission for which one had been fully briefed would not need to be undertaken at all...
My route looks straightforward, anyhow. I come to the edge of the rill. Like those of Earth's Moon, this one looks much shallower from close up. It's quite a gentle slope down to the bottom of the sunken road, a road built by Nature, but smooth and easy as any metalled way.
I descend into it. Nothing much to see down here. Bright enough, but lacking in detail. Just the floor and sides, of the same ice-rock mixture as the plain above, but without the vegetation. The only breaks in the monotony come every couple of hundred yards or so when I pass under an ice-bridge, of which the ribs and buttresses are plainly not the work of Nature.
After about half a dozen of these overhead structures I get tempted by the idea that by using one of them as cover I could creep up to have a look at the lie of the land. Could see how far I've gone; could see "what's cooking", if anything is.
What prompts me is, I am starting to notice red dots in front of my eyes. Turning my head from left to right causes the sparky dots to move accordingly, evidence that they really exist in the air around me, and that my eyesight is not at fault. Something is going on up on the surface.
I ascend, and peer from under the bridge at the join between it and the side of the rille.
I've come a noticeable distance around the curve of this world. Beyond the vegetal pavilions and some cloudy redness, a city is now visible on the horizon.
It must be Erzent, the city I want to reach; that's the only one of Dione's four which is situated on this quadrant of the globe.
I begin to notice that a faint but shrill sound is stabbing at my ears. It's a pleading whine, which I don't like. I can, however, endure it. It is known that the soils or crusts of Saturnian moons have a vast range of radiative properties, and it will take centuries of study before they are all understood, and that's nothing to do with my job; I must concentrate on my own next task, which is to get closer to that city.
The folk of Erzent are the ones who sent us the request for help. A pity they couldn't give more details, a pity that apparently all they could risk was a quick radio burst to the TIA ship Lifeline during its orbit around Saturn.
Oh well, it means they'll have to be satisfied, preliminarily at least, with Despatch Grade Agent Henrik Clerf.
Now, back down into the rille before I'm spotted by any Tethyan invaders...
Yet is this caution necessary? I have actually not seen any of these invaders, at least not close enough to identify. Nor, for that matter, have I certainly spotted any native Dioneans (or "Sreppans" as they call themselves); this little world seems largely empty.
Well, that agrees with what I've heard say... that the population of each of these tiny moons is only in the hundreds. With that thought comes another - that it's becoming increasingly difficult to take this job seriously.
But, after all, it is a job. I'll continue to take precautions and advance with care, even though I'm on what's probably more of a trainer than a real mission. My subsequent report will be as complete and as useful as I can make it; those squeaky red flashes which faintly sparkle and stain the air, will definitely get a mention. In showing the Company that I can cope with weird weather I'll be listing a nuisance that needs to be noted for future visits.
More hours gone by. More distance covered. More bridges passed over my head. Now it's time to go up again, otherwise I may miss the right way into Erzent.
So, up I go, hoping to see the city much closer, possibly within range of a short dash.
Aaaaah... here I am. Sputtering Space! I see it all at once!
Before my eyes, extend the city and its enemies, the entire scene a scary wonder which leaves me hardly able to move! Nevertheless, ought I to wrench myself into motion? Make that dash?
I don't think so. Better not risk it unless I'm forced. Looks like I have time, and don't need to make any urgent move.
That circling gun... and those seated cones... a beautiful standoff.
The cannon is a barrel maybe three yards wide and thirty yards long set in a forward-hunched parallelipiped mounting which (I am fairly sure) must be moving on a rail, a rail that takes it all around Erzunt in about five minutes. I crouch spellbound for a quarter of an hour as I watch the weapon circle steadily, purposively, three times around the half-mile-wide city, to aim at one enemy after another in the circle of besiegers.
Those besiegers, conical watchers, about eight feet tall and six in diameter, are spaced at intervals of about a third of a mile in what must surely be a complete circle around Erzunt, although naturally I can only be sure of the fraction of this formation that's included in my field of view. Each hulk is motionless, its back turned to me, its legs hidden under the mass of its body.
Given that they're so absolutely still, could I reasonably risk an attempt to dart between them, to rush across the mile-wide gap between them and the city?
I crouch, thinking, weighing the odds. But they're unknown odds. I can't know what weapons these Tethyans have, or how fast they can move. I'd certainly have no cover, if I ran into their view: no vegetation grows in the clear space between them and the city.
If the reddish mist were denser, I might risk it. Overall the entire scene is tinted by the sparks which must be swarming in concentration around Erzunt. Their mosquito-like whine has subsided in my awareness to a drone which I have got used to ignoring except when - as at this moment - it fancifully occurs to me, that it's trying to cadge sympathy for this little world.
What must I do? How much longer do I watch before either I advance or I retreat?
I feel a soft vibration at my wrist: my communicator announces an incoming call on the secure channel which means it has to be Hriri.
It is. "Are you well?" he asks in that cultured voice of his.
"Yes," say I, shortly.
"Are you sure?" he says.
The inanity of it grates on my nerves, swiftly undermining my determination to be civil. I snap back:
"What are you getting at?"
"No flickerings? No gaps in the vision?"
"None," I say truthfully. "My eyesight is steady. Why, shouldn't it be?"
"You're doing well, then," says the Mimantean. "A lot of other explorers in your place have got 'gap-eyed' by this stage. But you don't know what I'm talking about, and perhaps that's just as well, considering how precarious your present position is."
"If you're trying to un-nerve me," I grumble at him, "you're succeeding. I have arrived at Erzunt, I see it's under some sort of siege, I need to reach the city without being seen and I'd rather you were a help than a hindrance."
"Oh. In that case..." Hriri's voice drawls, hesitantly. "Perhaps you might risk some gappiness after all."
I grind my teeth. "Explain!"
"You'll be all right," he reflects, "so long as you continue in the third-beat mode whenever you draw breath. Reflect on what I've said, and risk those gaps. Bye for now."
I'm about to lose my temper completely, explode with ire and terminate the conversation with an oath - for it seems obvious that, for reasons of his own, Hriri is merely playing me for a mug. Then, all of a sudden, I see something...
No less than a transformation in my grasp of the scene.
How could I have been so dim-witted as to miss the theme of the "persistence of vision"? I, of all people - the old-movie buff! The frames in a reel of film are all discreet pictures - they don't really move but our sight supplies the idea of smooth, fluid motion when those pictures rapidly succeed one another before our gaze.
It's just one instantaneous leap of comparison between that truth and the physical truth of the granular nature of Time. Time is quantized, instants succeeding one another like frames on a reel of film.
And if, in a reel of film, every fourth frame were quite different from the others, in an independent sequence, and if it were possible, when projecting that reel of film, to adjust the projector so that only those one-in-four frames were shown and the other three in each quatrain were not, you'd be watching that separate movie...
Every fourth quantized instant on Dione's time-line is devoted to the blue-atmosphered, humanly habitable Dione. If a man can click onto that timeline he can walk unprotected on the moon's surface, as I am doing.
I see it all now, I see why Hriri was anxious that I "continue in the third-beat mode", the RIPP in the goa-gor-RIPP-zak, while I draw breath. Otherwise, I shan't draw be able to draw breath.
I feel ashamed at not having seen all this much sooner. Field operatives are supposed to be all-rounders; interdisciplinary thought-habits our stock-in-trade. Still, metaphoric resonance has only recently become a science, so maybe I shouldn't be too hard on myself. I was slow, but I'm still alive.
Hriri, at any rate, hasn't seen fit to rebuke me. In fact, my affinity with the "beat" that is keeping me alive has earned his approbation, it seems. He's waiting for me to progress to action. I see now, that it will have to be action based on his further hint, that I can dodge the Tethyans by, as it were, sneaking around the sequence of frames...
Fortunately, my belated grasp of the situation has given my confidence a hefty boost. I'm certainly going to need it if the sneaking manoeuvre is to be successful.
This tale is intended as an experiment in "open writing" - that's to say, composition in full view. Vastly different from my usual aim which is not to display anything at all before the finished product.
It'll probably be a while before I even get down to any actual story-text. First I've got to struggle with devising at least the sketch of a plot.
All I have at the moment is a vision. An elusive idea, of a little grey-and-while world, where the dominant life-form are cone-shaped beings who slide around the smooth Dionean plains.
Whoops, I just noticed that in my The Arc of Iapetus I refer to the Tethyans as "conical" whereas the Dioneans are "hexapods". Oh dear me. Can these vital data be reconciled in some way? Probably not. Unless the conical stage is part of a temporary self-image... Give me time, I'll work something out. [See the section below, "Using inconsistency".]
What's the "rescue" of the title referring to?
Not sure yet. Maybe a Terran, studying the cones, gets sucked in to their viewpoint - tempted in some way analogous to R Sheckley's "metaphoric deformation" idea (see Sheckley's Mindswap).
But I'm reluctant to place principal reliance on somebody else's idea.
More thinking needed.
Re the cone problem - the fact that my current vision makes the Dioneans cone-shaped whereas in a published story it is the Tethysians who are that shape and the Dioneans are "hexapods":
Let's use a theory of evolution-by-radiation. Not the respectable idea of radiation-sparked mutations getting promoted by natural selection. Rather, a quite different process like that suggested briefly by Eric Frank Russell in his novel Dreadful Sanctuary. It calls it a "solar-potency" theory, to account for humans appearing independently on the four inner planets. A wonderful, COMOLD-free idea which allows for telemorphs like those of Burroughs' Barsoom, Amtor and Va-nah. Now, instead of the Sun's rays causing this convergent evolution, I could use weaker, longer-wave radiation from Saturn. The rays have caused similar evolution on the neighbouring moons Tethys and Dione. Tethys has progressed to the cone-stage; Dione is on the verge of doing so but its people are still predominantly hexapod. The Dioneans are anticipating their cone-hood by force of will, and this creates effects which entrap an unwitting Terran investigator... hey, this stuff is almost writing itself.
Inconsistencies are a wonderful seed-
"I get suspicious," I said, "when people agree with me so easily. It's like I'm being humoured."
My factotum, CT4500 or Clever Trevor, shrugged. "If..."
Holding the simula of Dione as I seek life there.
"You're welcome to it, if there is."
A god with a small "g" can be defined as a creature whose powers are so great as to seem supernatural, though without any real qualitative transcendence.
It must be fantastically dangerous, being a god. Dangerous for the mind. Easy to go loony and not know it. Especially since by now - AD 99,998 - there are so many of us. Or rather, it would be dangerous, except that, to cope with this peril, we have evolved a corrective.
That old Terran Common Era calendar, so surprisingly durable and popular, is itself one clue to the corrective. The corrective which can be summed up in six syllables -
Issues come up: themes:
Spooky question: why are there no interstellar visitors? Possible answer: Star-god evolution maybe not a survival trait? Systems get full, collapse under their own psychic weight...?
Lifeless Dione - did I do this?
Just a probability world - but I may have bullied others out of existence, in my selfish urge to wipe a slate clean.
Visit to Earth archives to easy my mind.
Troposphere 250 miles deep. Blue. Like Neptune. Surface invisible.
Retro tech. AD 2000 or even 1950. Filing cabinet, giant, 100 miles high. Physical by-laws surrounding it, sparkling around it.
Vendetta - grav. control slips, newly, on side of cabinet.
Saturn's medium-sized moons have evocative, beautiful names, and seem to shimmer with potential personality. They've hardly been used at all in sf. What a lush field for a writer to frisk about in! The task then is to bring out their personalities.
Use an analogy between "ontology recapitulates phylogeny" and the idea that there are sequential gradations of reality: a pecking order, as it were, of probability-worlds. That way I might fit in the creaky AD 99,998 vision (see "old notes" section).
I need to establish the native Dionean name for Dione. Over my breakfast cereal I was reading a history book, as is my wont at breakfast; at the moment it's a re-reading of C V Wedgewood's The Trial of Charles I. When thinking about names for the Dione story I ran my eye down a page of text and began to read some words backwards, and mentally to shuffle the letters around a bit more.
The word "place" came to my attention. Backwards, it's "ecalp". Add a vowel and change the c to a k: Ekalap. Promising!
(By the way, ERB in his Amtor series uses the suffix -lap for some place names, if I remember correctly. Could the great man possibly have gone through the same thought-process...?)
But I'm not completely happy about referring to Dione as Ekalap. Another name that popped (from I don't know where) into my mind today, "Srepp", won't leave me alone till I use it for this Saturnian moon. "Srepp" is... kind of odd, rather harsh, but somehow it's the one for my purposes.
So - Dione is Srepp. And what about Ekalap?
Tethys? No, because I find myself wanting to keep "Ekalap" as a general term for the community of Saturnian moons. The instinct to do this is quite insistent, believe it or not.
Then what about Tethys? I believe I'm going to use the third name that occurred to me at breakfast - a crude, short name, used by the envious, somewhat resentful Dioneans for their neighbour moon...
Tethys is Kahak.
Possible start to the tale, or ingredient thereof:
The protagonist, a novice Terran Intelligence Agent, has been sent to Dione to investigate rumours of hostile infiltration by Tethyans. The rumours have been sparked off by sightings of cone-shaped beings on Dione in unusually large numbers. [It is not yet realized that these are actually Dioneans evolved or pretending to be evolved to look cone-shaped.]
Now here's the tricky bit.
The protagonist reflects on a warning he remembers being given, to the effect that he must beware of the strange Dionean sense of humour. In a flashback he re-lives this memory: "You will be in danger of being led to believe ludicrous things - so to avoid this, you must maintain your critical faculty. On no account give credence to inherently absurd beliefs about the background to your mission. Maintain your sense of realism and you will be safe from deception..."
I can then, of course, pile on the dramatic irony by making it obvious to the reader that this has already happened - even as the Agent checks over his own memories to make sure, as he thinks, that he has preserved his sense of realism.
For instance, he could go over a [false?] memory of being hired by a council of the Ekalap and registered as a spy quite openly and officially, in accordance with a supposed custom of the Saturn System whereby spies are accepted like medieval heralds were on Earth, as members of a special order, with rights of immunity during conflict.
Only - better watch carefully how I go with all this. From my authorial point of view, playing around with ideas of illusion has the possible disadvantage, that it may incur the danger of thinning the immediacy of the adventure, reducing it to the level of arbitrary dream where anything goes.
In the above section I touched on the problem of anything-goes wishy-washiness, brought on by over-reliance on phantasmagoric illusion.
I don't mean to downgrade successful dream-literature, of which George Macdonald's Phantastes is a masterly example. But sf is a different kettle of fish, or ought to be.
I can think of two sf greats who partly fell into the trap of over-reliance, not exactly on on an anything-goes theme, but on a sort of stock workhorse-explanation: Leigh Brackett with her penchant for radioactive powers (see for example The Big Jump and The Moon that Vanished), and C L Moore with her penchant for vampiric mind-powers (see most of the Northwest Smith stories).
Comparably - si parva licet componere magnis - the thematic over-reliance which may undermine me if I let it, concerns the idea that there are degrees of reality, that a person may swerve or veer along a spectrum of what is real, and that, in effect, there is actually no such thing as illusion. There, I said it. That's going to be what underpins this story - heaven help me. An artistic risk if ever there was one. An idea so intrinsically open-ended, that wishy-washiness threatens to inundate the plot in a tide of iridescent mush. How to preserve the bite, to keep the reader interested in what purports to be a real story with real hard happenings?
The risk may be increased if I make the wrong decision about whether to tell the story in the first or in the third person.
My notes so far were written on the assumption that I'd narrate in the third person. But now I'm wondering - tempted by the first-person idea with its greater ease of immediacy and conveying the thoughts of the protagonist.
A further question: if it does get told in the first person, should it also be told in the present tense? That would be even more immediate.
Too much so, perhaps? Increasing the hallucinatory vividness too far?
On the other hand I have the example of one of my favourite stories to follow: A E van Vogt's Fulfilment. That is told in the first person and in the present tense, and it's so good that I've re-read it innumerable times. No clearer proof can be required, that this mode of story-telling can succeed in the hands of a master... Um.
Yet another thought: I seem to remember Keith Laumer writing some good stories which are mostly first-person yet with a third-person "frame", i.e. an introduction and epilogue in the third person. For example, Assignment in Nowhere.
That might be the option I need here.
And Laumer is an inspiring and comforting example on the phantasmagoric-peril front too. His Knight of Delusions - come to think of it - runs all the risks I've outlined in this section, and triumphantly avoids them. (See Time Travel and Reality Change.)
Found a name for the main protagonist: Henrik Clerf - a novice Terran Intelligence Agency field-operative. He's a young man with an obsessive interest in old movies and the gadgetry of film projection; his superiors think this is a harmless hobby.
The more experienced TIA agent Seth Hurst (later the hero of The Arc of Iapetus; see Vintage Worlds 3) shrugs at the idea of sending Clerf to solve the mystery of Dione; his attitude is, might as well let him have a go; when he fails, as is most likely, there'll be time enough to send someone of higher calibre.
Hurst however is then amazed to learn of an applicant from Mimas named Hriri who has asked to accompany Clerf to Dione. The Mimanteans, though somewhat absurd in appearance (squat, hairy, troll-like shufflers), have a reputation for power and wisdom second only to that of the Saturnians themselves.
Hriri's function in the story is to focus the reader's interest on the ambiguities of Dionean life: especially to head off the idea that the only types of theory which could allow one to turn bleakly bare Dione into a lushly fertile Dione (a transformation which has occasionally been reported) are either hypnotism of some kind or the old trope of a standard probability-world or dimensional-shift story. Hriri, it turns out, shows us there's an altogether different option. He uses Clerf's interest in old movie-projectors to help him understand a strobe effect, by which every nth instant of quantized time is allocated to a lush coexisting facet of Dione's nature, allowing the explorer to focus on those instants alone, and thus, by ignoring the other instants which would contradict it, to experience the lush facet on full power.
"Switching on" in this way to the lush Dione, the visitor finds that the revolving city of Erzent becomes visible. The city has to revolve, turning through 360 degrees every half hour or so, to keep its one major gun trained on the dangerous growths which keep sprouting around it. The city's survival and prosperity is thus an ancient equilibrium which relies upon power and vigilance.
In plotting the story I had reached the stage - pursuing an analogy with chess - at which the opening and the end-game were adequately sketched out, but the middle-game remained a blank.
Opening: Agent goes to Dione to investigate apparent invasion by Tethyan conoids.
End: Agent discovers there is no invasion: the conoids are native Dioneans who have reached the next stage of their evolution, which involves convergence with Tethyan forms.
But what happens in the middle? What delays the denouement enough so as to allow for a middle?
Here's an example of the problem itself furnishing its own solution. After some hours of apparent mental inertia during which it all stewed in my head, I suddenly found that the mere juxtaposition of opening and end caused the middle to pop into existence to fill the gap, as follows:
Agent takes a while to get the answer. Why? Because he's delayed. What or who delays him? Atavistic Dioneans! Dioneans who don't like the trend of their own evolution. Stick-in-the-mud Dioneans who want to retain their species' old shape and who want Terran help against those who are becoming conical.
These reactionaries spin a tale to the Agent, imploring him to side against the "invaders".
Questions remain; details need to be worked out. But that's the shape of the "Middle-Game".
And with that, I now have the major elements of the plot.