Stradivarius

by moonmama [Reviews - 4]

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Author's Notes:
Written for the Big Finish "Short Trips" competition. Alas, the winners have been posted and I'm not among them.

1811 - VIENNA

“Lucie Miller,” observed the Doctor, looking up at his companion, his mouth curving upwards. “I never would’ve expected you to be so affected by something so highbrow as a classical violin solo like Vitali's Chaconne.”

Lucie was on her feet, applauding furiously with the rest of the crowd in the concert hall. “It’s just…” she turned to him as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’ve never heard anything like it. The song, the violin…” she sat back down with a thump. “It was beautiful. It was all haunting and mournful, like. Whoever wrote it must’ve been dying of a broken heart and trying to take us all with him.”

“Hoffman's performance was particularly superb this evening,” he agreed.

Lucie blew her nose loudly and stuffed the handkerchief into her pocket. “So you gonna tell me why we’re here, then? What’s so special about all this?”

The Doctor tapped his fingers together thoughtfully. “That violin he’s playing,” he explained, nodding in the direction where the performer was taking another bow. “It’s at the centre of one of the greatest historical mysteries of all time.”

“And what’s that?” she asked.

“The mystery, Lucie,” he said with a glint in his eye, “is how could a Stradivarius violin that was made in Cremona, Italy in 1703, turn up fossilized in the thirty-sixth century in the Chilean mountains?”

Lucie cracked the gum in her mouth and shrugged. “So they found some posh violin chucked away in South America,” she protested. “What’s the mystery? Some two-bit thief probably nicked it, realised it was hot enough to burn Satan’s ashes on, sold it for two quid to some dealer who then sold it at an underground auction to an eccentric billionaire who kept it hidden as part of his collection in Chile, where nobody would see it.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Ah, but the violin’s remains dated back to the year 100,000 B.C.”

She stopped chewing, her brow furrowed. “But that’s impossible. When did this Stradilopolous bloke live?”

Stradivarius,” he corrected. “He lived in the 17th and early 18th centuries, and that is precisely the point. Scholars tried to explain it for years, even decades afterwards. They called into question the carbon dating methods, the archaeologists were interrogated and repudiated beyond reason. But there was always a core group who believed the findings to be legitimate.”

“Including you, by the looks of it,” Lucie observed playfully.

“Indeed,” he agreed. “I think it’s time to pay the maestro a visit, don’t you?”

+ - + - + - +

A melody met their ears as they approached the musician's dressing room. The Doctor reached up a hand to the door, but paused before knocking.

The music halted abruptly and a man's voice could be heard swearing from within. The tune resumed for a moment, ended again with a shattering scratch of the bow on the strings, and the swearing took on an urgent tone. More playing, slower, again and again, another rasp of the bow and the man's voice approached ranting, the actual speech unintelligible through the door.

Lucie glanced at the Doctor in alarm, but then the playing resumed, smoother this time, and continued on past the troublesome patch. The melody soared, busy with notes, haunting and sad and when the Doctor looked over at his companion, he was surprised to see tears in her eyes. “Lucie, what is it?”

She shook her head vigorously, sending the tears in a path down her face. “I don't know,” she whispered in response. “It's just something about that violin, it reaches right inside me and rips at my heart.”

The tune continued, picking up tempo until it reached a manic pace. Unwilling to wait any longer, the Doctor gave a gentle knock on the door and opened it.

Lucie gasped at the scene that greeted them. The room was dark and musty, lit only by a few candles that cast shadows over the musician's face like dancing skeletons. Hoffman took no notice of them, but continued playing at his frantic pace as he gyrated wildly with each peak of the melody. The sweat poured from his brow, and the tears poured from his eyes. His playing was vibrant, lush and passionate.

He appeared almost entirely helpless under its power.

Wisps of an ethereal light, clearly of unnatural origin, danced all about the instrument and the wildly flashing bow.

“Doctor, what's that?” Lucie choked out.

He raised a finger to his lips and gestured silently at Hoffman.

The man took no notice, but continued playing in his fevered state, alternating between torment and ecstasy until the melody came to an end.

With the silence, the shimmering wafts of light disappeared, seemingly sucked into the instrument as Hoffman set it down in its case and collapsed into a chair. He buried his head in his hands, his breaths heavy and short, his shoulders heaving with each stifled sob as he muttered to himself, still unaware of their presence, “…sweetest agony…so tired...please.”

Lucie made her way over and crouched down next to him. “Are you all right?” she asked.

He startled at the sound of her voice but seemed otherwise unsurprised. “She never stops,” he moaned. “She tears out my insides and works alchemy on them, leaving me in tatters.”

“Who?” Lucie asked.

“My muse,” he replied, lifting his head to gaze at her with clouded, confused eyes.

“Mr. Hoffman,” interjected the Doctor, “I’m the Doctor, and this is Lucie Miller.” He leaned across the table to gaze directly at the man. “We’re here to help.”

“You know what that was?” Lucie asked him, nodding towards the violin.

“I have an idea,” he confirmed. His grim face was not reassuring. “Mr. Hoffman,” the Doctor addressed the other man. “That is the Stradivarius violin, sobriquet 'Alsager', is it not? I was wondering if I might ask you a few questions about it?”

“You can’t buy it,” Hoffman retorted bluntly.

“I’m not interested in buying it,” the Doctor assured him. “I merely…”

“You can’t touch it,” the other man added, and if the first response lobbed a stone, this one shot a bullet. “She’s mine. She doesn’t want you.” He swatted at his ear with a whimper.

“Take it easy, mate,” Lucie soothed, laying a hand on his shoulder. “We’re not trying to take it from you.”

He closed his eyes and started to hum softly as the Doctor spoke up with another question. “Mr. Hoffman, can you tell me how the violin came into your possession?”

Hoffman turned his head away and spoke as if in a trance. “Death,” he breathed. “My father's brother’s heart stilled, and she called to me from the dark, hungry and forgotten.”

“You inherited it from your uncle?” Lucie translated.

His eyes flew open. “It was fate,” he bit back. “She wanted me.” His eyes fell closed and he resumed humming.

Lucie edged her way over to the Doctor and nudged him with her elbow. “Doctor, he’s completely barmy,” she whispered under her breath.

He pressed his lips together and gave a nod as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. Then he crouched down to face Hoffman “Mr. Hoffman, I wonder if you might permit me a look inside your mind?”

Hoffman's shoulders jerked and his eyes flew open. “What’s that? Why?”

The Doctor laid a hand on his arm. “You're having trouble sleeping? Hearing voices? I might be able to help — in a small way, at least. It won't hurt and I promise not to look at anything you don't want me to see.”

Hoffman glanced between the two of them before silently nodding his consent. The Doctor leaned in, placed a hand on either side of the man’s face, fingers lightly touching his temples, and closed his eyes.

Immediately an ear-splitting screech sent him reeling backwards as he broke contact with the other man. Hoffman slumped down with his head on the table.

Lucie jumped away. “What was that?” she asked, alarmed.

The Doctor gaped at Hoffman with wide, horrified eyes as he got to his feet and backed away. “It's as I thought.” He sighed and spun round to face her. “Hai mousai,” he spat out. “It's a parasitic, telepathic creature who takes up residence in objets d'art — a violin in this case. It seeks a host; a sentient being with certain creative abilities. Then it latches on, establishes a telepathic connection and feeds off the host's emotions; the strong emotions evoked by music, art — anything you might consider aesthetic beauty.” He got to his feet and barked out a command. “Show yourself!”

The space around the violin began to shimmer like heat in the desert. The strings reverberated in sympathy, and then a word became discernible, a whisper that seemed to sigh through the air and into their minds. “Mmmmuuuusssseeee...” it breathed.

“There's no such thing,” called out the Doctor defiantly. “You will leave this man’s mind at once!”

Hoffman's head flew up. “No!” he cried, his tortured eyes wide with panic. “You can't! I need her.”

An ethereal form took shape round the violin, swirled round the instrument and flickered in Hoffman's eyes. Lucie regarded the sight and swallowed hard. “Doctor,” she began slowly, “I know it's a match made in hell, but I'm not sure either one of them wants to let go.”

Hoffman was rocking back and forth in his seat. His eyes fell closed and he spoke like a prayer. “She's the diamond in my soul of excrement,” he pleaded. “I can't play the violin without her.”

The Doctor shook his head. “This is not some idealised goddess that inspires art and beauty. It is destroying your mind.” A thought surfaced and his brow creased. “Mr. Hoffman, how did your uncle die?”

Lucie shot an annoyed look at the Doctor. “What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?”

The Doctor raised his eyebrows at Hoffman. “I assure you, it's quite relevant. And you know it, don't you, Mr. Hoffman?” he said pointedly. “It was suicide, wasn't it?”

Hoffman nodded, his face lined and shadowed and desperate with fear.

Lucie gasped with sudden understanding. “Are you saying this thing just hops from mind to mind like a bad cold, driving each person to suicide before moving on to the next poor sap?”

The Doctor nodded grimly. “That's exactly what it does. Unfortunately it's almost always there by mutual consent, which does make it rather difficult to get it to stop.” He turned to Hoffman and there was steel in his gaze. “Mr. Hoffman, if you truly want the creature gone, it will leave. You must force it out.”

Hoffman grabbed fistfuls of hair and moaned. “I can't.” Anguish turned to anger and he slammed a fist down on the table. “Don't you see? She makes me better.”

The Doctor shook his head. “What this creature is doing to you is anything but an improvement.”

“Tortured artists,” groaned Lucie, grabbing the Doctor's arm. “Isn't that what they always say? They'll give up anything and everything for greatness?”

He looked at her in surprise. “It's true,” he agreed. “There's a clear link between mental illness and creative genius.”

“Doctor, supposing the creature does leave him alone — will he go back to being normal?”

He shook his head. “It's unlikely,” he confessed. “The brain damage is probably extensive by now.”

She folded her arms over her chest. “So you're asking him to give up the one thing in his life that gives him meaning, so he can live out the rest of his days delusional and lost and completely cut off from his passion?”

“I won't,” insisted Hoffman with the fierceness of a wild animal.

“Plus,” Lucie added, “if it does leave, won't it just find somebody else to drive nutters?”

The Doctor closed his eyes and sighed. “You're right.”

“Damn straight,” she agreed. “So we find another way, yeah?”

“Lucie,” he announced, turning towards the door, his movement slow and reluctant and inevitable. “I think we've solved the great historical mystery of the Alsager violin.”

+ - + - + - +

100,000 B.C. - CHILE

The sun was just setting over the white-clad mountains as the Doctor and Lucie stepped out of the crudely constructed shelter and strode slowly towards the TARDIS. The wind whipped at their faces, the chill in the air a tangible reminder of the emptiness that surrounded them in this world that had not yet seen humans or any of the passions they brought with them; love and rage, higher reasoning and logic and the beauty of art created out of a man's soul.

On this day, it was introduced to music, tens of thousands of years earlier than it should've.

“You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star,” the Doctor quoted with a sigh. “Or so Nietzsche claimed. I think we've seen that here today.”

“So that's it then?” Lucie asked him. “He'll be all right for a bit, I suppose?”

“Well, we've left him with enough provisions to last him for some time,” he replied. “Honestly, I think his lucidity will run out long before his food does; he's a far greater danger to himself than any perils in this world.” His shoulders sagged as he gave a sigh of regret.

Lucie reached out to catch his hand and give it a squeeze. “It's what he wanted,” she reminded him. “He's got his music. And his muse.”

He nodded. “And once he's gone, there won't be any other life forms with a high enough consciousness for the creature to torment.”

“Yeah,” agreed Lucie. She scanned the area, breathing in the crisp air as they reached the TARDIS and the Doctor unlocked the door. “Funny, though,” she added as they disappeared inside. “He didn't consider it torment.”

The blue box dematerialised just as the strains of a Bach sonata filled the prehistoric landscape, an act of fleeting rapture between man and muse; the pain of creation and mutual decay leaving behind only splendour in its wake.

fin