Doctor Who and the Delian Mode by hangingfire

Summary: The Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, and a music festival. And a mystery, of course.
Rating: All Ages
Categories: Fourth Doctor
Characters: Sarah Jane Smith
Genres: Drama, General, Mystery, Standalone
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2010.05.27
Updated: 2010.05.27

Doctor Who and the Delian Mode by hangingfire
Chapter 1: Doctor Who and the Delian Mode
Author's Notes: Originally written and submitted to the Big Finish Short Trips contest in the spring of 2010. Alas, it didn't make the final cut, but I was well enough pleased with it, and so am posting it here. Many thanks to my friend Shellie for her last-minute beta-read (done the Friday before it was due, forsooth). Humbly and respectfully dedicated to the memory of the great Delia Derbyshire, musician and composer extraordinaire.

"Well," said the Doctor, "it's certainly not Texas."

Sarah Jane rolled her eyes. Green-tinged sky, the amber leaves of the trees, and the beautiful, blue-skinned woman passing by amid a crowd of similarly alien festival-goers would have told anyone that they weren't within shouting distance of Earth. She lingered at the door of the TARDIS as he headed down the alleyway.

"So where are we then, Doctor?" she asked, recognising her usual cue.

"Well, the original name's a bit difficult to pronounce," he said, "but by this point, which is about two thousand years beyond yours, the people of Earth have named it Polyhymnaris." A passing man snagged the Doctor's scarf on the point of a large, harp-like instrument that he was wheeling on the ground behind him; they exchanged apologies and the man moved on. "And if I'm not mistaken, we have arrived in the midst of the annual Polyhymnarian music festival!" He grinned at Sarah Jane. "Isn't that marvellous? So we shall see a music festival after all! Come on."

"But–" Sarah Jane began; then she realised that as usual, it was no good protesting that he'd promised she could hear what popular music was like at a festival on Earth in 2000; he would only argue that this was much more interesting. As she caught up to him, she found him staring at a poster taped to the wall with that frown that suggested he had found a problem.

"'Valian Levar: A Concert in the Delian Mode. Octday, 24 Blessure, Evening 2030'," she read out loud.

"I didn't think anyone knew the Delian Mode," he said thoughtfully. "Certainly not at this point in history; it was suppressed in this quadrant about four centuries ago. Unsuppressed a century ago once a more enlightened government came in, but by then everyone had forgotten how to play it. I suppose someone must have re-learnt." He stood in thoughtful silence for a moment. "24 Blessure. That's..." He looked around. "Tonight, if I'm not mistaken. Well, we mustn't miss that, must we? And I bet if we head over to the concert hall now, we'll be able to meet the performer. She's probably practising as we speak!"

He struck off through the crowd and Sarah Jane, certain now that there was no choice at all, scurried after him.

Every place in the city where a few platforms or tables could be shoved together for a stage seemed to have a band playing. One moment you'd pass a girl playing the regional equivalent of a lute and singing love songs in a high, reedy voice; then you'd turn a corner to an auditory assault by a blast of electromechanical noise. It was overwhelming, and nearly impossible to have a conversation with the Doctor, who seemed to be enjoying the cacaphony.

"So why did they suppress it?" Sarah Jane asked. "Was it associated with some religious sect, or a dissenting political group?"

"Hm? What?" The pretence of absentmindedness lost something when it was shouted over a brass band.

"The Delian Mode. Why–oh, for pity's sake, Doctor!" She stopped and glared at him. "I'm trying to educate myself here."

"I'll explain it all later. Come on. I think we're nearly there."

Sarah huffed out a sigh and hurried after him.

The concert was in a great soaring stone structure like an old church, all arches and tall windows. A handful of festival staffers were in the midst of setting up for the performance. Whenever one shot a quizzical look at the Doctor, he simply beamed back and moved on like he belonged there–a tactic which seemed perfectly sufficient. He pushed open the front doors and they stepped into a cool, cavernous space filled with rows of seats and dominated by a great organ-like instrument where one would have expected an altar. It had a keyboard, a panel full of dials, switches, and small screens, and a towering array of pipes, speakers, and tubes from which an impressive sound would emerge. "An electrophonic organ!" exclaimed the Doctor. "One of the biggest ones I've ever seen. Magnificent." As he strode forward to examine it, Sarah Jane stooped to pick up a sheet of paper lying on the ground.

Noticing her find, the Doctor rejoined her. "What's that?"

"Sheet music. Or something like it. It's got a seven-line staff instead of five lines and I suppose those odd little shapes are notes."

The Doctor took it from her hands. "Why yes, it is. Old Polyhymnarian notation. Well, well. That's very interesting indeed." He pointed to a scribble in the corner. "I think it must be what our performer is playing tonight. That's odd."

"What's odd about sheet music for a performance lying around in the concert hall?"

"Well. Nothing, really." He scratched his head. "Except that the Delian Mode is a strictly improvisational style. It doesn't use sheet music. Well, not like this; the performer works off a list of visual and verbal cues, not notation. I wonder–"

"Oh my gods, I've been looking for that everywhere!"

A middle-aged woman–dark-skinned, grey-haired, clutching an armful of papers–came hurrying down the aisle. The Doctor's eyes widened and he smiled broadly, holding out his hand in a friendly manner. "Ah! Valian Levar, I presume."

She looked him up and down, clearly nonplussed by the scarf, the hat, the slightly manic manner. "Yes. Who are you?"

"I'm the Doctor, and this is Sarah Jane Smith. You know, I'm quite looking forward to the concert tonight; I didn't think anyone remembered how to perform music in the Delian Mode."

"I'm a musicologist, Doctor, and I've spent my life seeking out lost recordings and writings on that...misunderstood style of music. Now, please, if I could have my sheet back–"

"Actually," the Doctor replied, rather ostentatiously taking advantage of his height and holding the sheet slightly out of Valian's reach, "I was wondering if you could explain it. Because I thought that the Delian Mode was improvised, not composed."

"It's a transcription." Valian's eyes flicked sideways and she shifted uncomfortably. "A transcription of an old recording. It's the best we can do these days, you see, since no one's been trained to perform it in four centuries."

"You're not a very good liar, Ms. Levar," the Doctor replied. His tone was still benign and he still smiled, but the wide blue eyes had gone sombre. "Now look, it's no great matter to me if you're playing a transcription or not, but something's clearly got you very nervous about it." His voice softened. "It's all right, you know. You can tell me."

Valian looked around anxiously, and for a moment, Sarah Jane thought that she would grab the sheet and run. Something changed in Valian's expression and, like so many before her, she clearly decided that she could trust the tall, curly-haired stranger.

"It was given to me," she said quietly. "By Randis Myrdoch, the Chancellor of the Quandrant. It's a partial transcription, true. But it has some changes that I don't fully understand. He wanted me to play it tonight, specifically, and he ..." She took a deep breath and, in an embarrassed voice, continued, "he offered me a great deal of money. A research grant." She looked at the Doctor sardonically. "There's not a lot of funding for musicology anywhere. So I accepted. I didn't think there would be any harm."

The Doctor rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Chancellor, eh? Remind me how things work here–he stands to succeed the Premiereship, doesn't he? If anything happens to the Premiere?"

"That's right. They're both going to be here tonight."

The Doctor nodded and turned away, looking over the electrophonic organ again. "Have you played the full piece yet, Valian?"

"Yes. Well, not on the electrophonic organ. Just on a practice keyboard. Today's the first day I've had access to this place."

"Really?" The Doctor shook his head. "That hardly seems fair. They can't expect you to have any proper feel for the music without the full thing. Why don't we give it a whirl?"

Valian glanced over her shoulder at a staffer who had peered in through the doors. "But–"

"Oh, come on, no one will notice." He waved cheerfully at the staffer, who waved back and left. "It's got to be at least three hours before anyone else shows up, surely? Keep the volume to a minimum, see how it sounds, how about that?"

She exhaled slowly. "Oh, all right."

Valian went to the electrophonic organ, arranged her sheet music, and began powering up the enormous instrument. "I don't see how this is going to prove anything, Doctor," Sarah Jane said to him. "Unless you think there's some kind of booby trap in the music?" The idea sounded ridiculous even as she spoke.

"I don't know, Sarah. It could all be nothing. But I have to know..."

Her preparations complete, Valian began to play. 

It didn't sound very good to Sarah Jane. It reminded her of some of the electronic synthesizer music that was emerging on Earth when she was last there, but there were unpleasant discords and strange chord changes that seemed designed to make the listener uncomfortable. She glanced at the Doctor; judging by his expression, he was no happier with it. She was about to make a joke about how she could see why the music had been suppressed when something happened.

The floor started vibrating. Valian struck a deep chord on the electrophonic organ, some vast scale-spanner of a sound possible only on a machine with that many pedals, keys, and oscillators, and now the whole building seemed to tremble. Sarah Jane felt it in the bones of her skull and clapped her hands to her ears; she could just barely hear the Doctor shouting at Valian to stop.

She stopped, and seconds later, so did the terrible vibration. The building seemed to relax, and puzzled faces appeared in the door as staffers peered in, wondering what had happened.

"I don't understand–" Valian began.

"That," the Doctor said gravely, "is literally the most dangerous piece of music you could have played here."

Sarah Jane snapped her fingers. "Resonance. Of course! I wrote an article about that–sound wave effects on a structure's frequency. Get it just right and it'll make the entire building vibrate–ring it like a great big bell."

"Exactly." The Doctor grinned proudly at Sarah Jane, and then his expression sobered. "If you'd kept playing that chord, the whole building could have collapsed. I think our friend Myrdoch was setting a very unusual sort of trap for the Premiere. I imagine he's got plans to leave the concert early–just before you play that passage."

Valian went dreadfully pale. "What am I supposed to do? We can't cancel the concert, not now, not with just a few hours to spare! I've got to play something!"

"Don't play it. Play a real piece in the Delian Mode, instead."

"But I can't! I've listened to recordings, I've studied it my whole life, but I'm not...I don't have the gift. Not like the great musicians of the past. I'm just an historian. I can't do it."

The Doctor put a gentle hand on her shoulder and bent down to look her in the eyes. "Do you really think that? Do you really think that you have spent your life on this, so much time, so much effort–"

"So much love," interjected Sarah Jane.

"Yes. You can do it. You have it in you, Valian." He smiled. "Come on. After you've been set up by the Chancellor like this, don't you want a chance to show him what the Delian Mode really is? What it truly means?"

Valian swallowed nervously; she looked at the electrophonic organ, and then at the Doctor. At last, a slow smile crept across her face. "Well," she said, "I reckon I can do my best."

The concert was supposedly sold out, but somehow the Doctor found seats for himself and Sarah Jane in the old choir loft. Once he'd gotten her situated, he disappeared, returning several minutes later with a cheerful look on his face. He dropped into his seat, removed his floppy hat, and settled in for the performance.

"What have you been doing?" Sarah Jane asked.

"Oh, tidying up a loose end or two. Nothing for us now but to enjoy the show." He leaned back in his chair in a manner that suggested further questioning wouldn't get her anywhere. Sarah Jane stifled an irritated grumble.

The house lights went low and, to a round of polite applause, Valian Levar stepped up to the electrophonic organ. She bowed. "I wish to dedicate this performance to the many great musicians of the Delian Mode," she said, "so many long forgotten, many more whose names we will never know. And I also wish to dedicate this friends." She looked up into the loft and caught the Doctor's and Sarah Jane's eyes, and with a faint smile, she seated herself at the organ and began to play.

From the first few notes, Sarah Jane knew this was something entirely different than what she'd heard earlier. A series of high, shimmering arpeggios seemed to fill her heart with light; then a string of soft bass notes made her throat close up as if with tears. She shivered a little, though the crowded auditorium was warm, and when she looked around, she could see people quietly reaching for handkerchiefs.

Below, the Chancellor stiffened visibly in his chair. As Valian played a blazing fast run of notes up the keyboard, he leapt to his feet and hurried out. From somewhere below, just audible through the music, there was the sound of scuffling, followed by the slam of a door. Sarah Jane looked sideways at the Doctor. He winked.

And the music continued: a rich tapestry of tonal shifts and chords that drew the listener through sadness, but never so far as despair; through wild joy; and then up, as if on the wings of some great bird, to a place high and rapturous and free.

As the concert ended and the audience erupted into thunderous applause, Sarah Jane turned to the Doctor. There was a smile on his face, but it was an expression as deep and complex as the music had been. "You see, Sarah," he said softly, "that's why they suppressed the Delian Mode. Some rulers just can't stand the idea of people knowing so much joy. Our friend the Chancellor couldn't either, I suspect, and wanted the Premiere out of his way too. Fortunately it sounds like my new friends the guards were paying attention after all."

He rose to his feet and raised his hand in salute to Valian, who grinned and waved back as she was suddenly surrounded by enthusiastic listeners. The Doctor took Sarah Jane's arm, and they made their way out into the night.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

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