Science Fiction Romance music stars astrophyics pop star

Mambo No. M51

By James Van Pelt
Sep 23, 2020 · 3,535 words · 13 minutes

Stars Galaxy Rocky Mountain

Photo by Jeremy Thomas via Unsplash.

From the author: Someone once described "obsession" as a form of mental disease, like OCD. Everyone needs to have interests, but when those interests overwhelm balance in a person's life, they become a problem. But doesn't that mean that if you have any interests at all that you are on the road to being overwhelmed by them? Doesn't that mean we all are, just a little, mentally diseased? What we desire and how we behave towards those desires are a part of "Mambo No. M51."


            Emma Sophia lounged in a cast chair by the offstage food table eating a celery stick and eyeing the backup dancers languidly. “I’m thinking of changing my name to ‘S,’” she said. “The great ones only had one name: Cher, Madonna, Sade, Rhianna.”

            “The letter, or are you going to spell it out?” I sat in the canvas-backed chair next to her that read “assistant director,” but I was really one of the post-production CGI guys. Music videos aren’t anything until we get hold of them.

            “Just the letter’s curve. It’s about the shape.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “Shapes, patterns and rhythms. The universe is an information paradise, if you have an eating-lion mind.”  She draped one leg over the chair’s wooden arm. Everything she wore was black: knee-high boots, nylons with fashionable tears, leather shorts, and an armless, leotard top, also torn, like a tiger had taken a swipe at her midriff. A black biker’s jacket completed her look, covered with steel studs and zippers, matching steel-studded black gloves. White hair washed over her shoulders.

            Emma Sophia had been voted “sexiest pop artist of the year” for the last two years in a row.

            She also could have been voted nuttiest, if they had such a category.

            Men and women dancers moved into position on the Armageddon set, a series of stages surrounded by industrial pipes and rusted machinery, while the lighting technicians rotated through the colors hidden behind the props: violet, red, turquoise, peach, and a hellfire orange.  Metal clanged against metal. The set smelled of water, baby oil, sweat and electricity.

            “Get in the mood! Get in the mood!” yelled the choreographer, and began clapping her hands. “It’s a rave at the apocalypse, dance against chaos. Everything’s desperate. Everything’s foreplay. One last orgasm before the end!”

            The dancers were beautiful in their torn outfits, like they’d just come from a catwalk knife fight at an exclusive fashion show. Lots of unexpected skin and toned, dancers’ legs.

            I asked, “Are you in this bit?”

            “They’ll call me when they’re ready. Is the room done?” She leaned toward me, a breathtaking movement, her jade-jeweled eyes fixing mine.

            “Yes, it’s ready.”

            “Sound system? You programmed my mix?”

            I nodded.

            “Good.” She put in a pair of ear buds and thumbed her music player to life, leaving me to my own thoughts...

            Two weeks ago, when I’d met her, she’d asked me if I wanted to listen to her personal music collection. She had a nice setup. Expensive, noise-suppressing buds custom fit for her ears, although they did okay in mine. I’d taken them from her, trying not to tremble. I’m post-production, for crying out loud. I’m not the kind of guy who hobnobs with Emma Sophia. I don’t know how she knew who I was, but she’d asked for me.

            Static came through her earbuds.

            “It’s broken,” I said, popping one out.

            “Keep listening.”

            A heavy snapping, like porcelain clicking against an anvil, and a rushing fuzz.

            “Still static,” I said. “Is that what I’m supposed to hear?”

            “That’s the Crab Nebula. Did you know that space makes music? You can find thousands of radio telescope recordings. You can even hear it live. I’ve got my top ten here.” She held the screen where I could see her playlist: M51, Jupiter, Orion, Xi-hydrae, the Pillars of Creation. “Have you ever listened to something a hundred times in a row?”
            “No...but I've watched the same video footage more times than I'd like to count.”

            “It’s sort of like that—like standing in front of a painting every day. At first it’s all the obvious stuff. Color. Composition. You get it in ten seconds. But when you come back again and again, you see the picture underneath. Once I spent a week looking at just one corner of Bruegel’s “Fall of Icarus.”

            “What did you see?”

            She didn’t answer, and after a while I thought she hadn’t heard the question.

            “Immolation,” she finally said.

            Later, the assistant director told me, “She’s damaged. Runaway OCD, or something." He laughed, an ugly snort. "She loses time. Missed a concert once. Everyone was in a panic.  ‘Where’s Emma Sophia? Where’s Emma Sophia?’ and when they found her, she was plopped down in front of a TV staring at the interference pattern between television stations. Took them an hour to snap her out of it. Some kind of self-induced coma—prima donna whack job.”

            It was hard ignoring what the director had said when she described the special room she wanted me to build for her.

            “High-def video screens all the way around,” she said. We stood in her dressing room on the set, a small space stripped bare. That day she wore running shoes, jeans and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Still, she shone like a laser.

            “So, four big screens,” I said, puzzled. She didn’t need a CGI expert for that. A call to any electronics store could get whatever she wanted installed.

            “No, wall to wall, one continuous screen and the same on the floors and ceiling. Seamless. Everywhere I look should be screen, and then I want them so that they all show a single image, like ‘The Veldt.’”

            I raised my eyebrows.

            “It’s a story about a kid’s nursery with the same arrangement. You don’t know it? You’ll need Plexiglas on the floor to protect the screens, but it has to be totally transparent, like aquarium glass.” After explaining the story she said, “At the end, the lions eat,” which was the title of her platinum album from last year. I didn’t know what it had to do with this conversation, though, or if it connected to her ‘eating-lion’ mind she kept referencing.

            I jotted notes and tallied an approximate cost. “That’s going to be expensive. What do you want to display?”

            She laughed, preoccupied, with her hands behind her back, like she was imagining it already. “I’ll send you the images. You’ll need to do your CGI magic on them.”

            “A forest, or something?” I said.

            “It’ll be my holodeck.”

            “Um...Star Trek?"

            “Or something. The new song—my song for the video—it’s a mambo. Have you heard it?”

            I shook my head.

            “Rock and roll mambo. Listen to some mambo before we talk again. I’d like this set up as soon as possible.”

            So, I listened to mambo while I ordered the equipment. It started in Cuba, you know.  Perez Prado, Beny More. It was a dance craze, but Emma Sophia’s rock and roll mambo didn’t sound much like it. Every once in a while a string of notes reminded me of the stuff I’d been listening to, and if I turned down the guitars and synthesizers, the beat hit right. Her version was a distant cousin, all techno and over-dubbed magic.

            At my apartment, I tried the fuzz between television station bit, like she did. My sixty-inch screen hissed and popped, and scattered gray randomness at me, but I didn’t see what she saw, whatever that was. I couldn’t put myself into her “eating-lion mind.”

           I’d never done a total immersion video room, which is what she’d described, but the software to handle it was straightforward. Not something an ordinary laptop could render, of course, but not outrageous either. I put tiny, almost invisible speakers in the room’s corners, the big woofers behind the screens, and a couple of cameras that would track whoever was in the room so the image moved with them. I liked the forest idea. If she took a step, a close tree would slide in front of a far away one, giving the illusion of a three dimensional world.

            What she’d given me, though, wasn’t a forest: it was pictures of a galaxy, M51, whose sounds she’d let me listen to. The first picture showed the entire spiral shaped M51 hooked to another, smaller galaxy called NGC 5195. If I turned the picture on its side, it looked like a momma apostrophe towing a baby apostrophe. She’d given me other pictures too, showing details, the glowing gasses between the stars, nova remnants, dust, swirling shapes. To create the image, I had to assign distance values to the individual elements. After a few days all I could think of was star coordinates, brightness and color...and now it was finally today, the day of the shoot...

            Emma Sophia closed her eyes, turned up the volume. I could hear clicks and hissing, even over the noise from the set. Makeup interns spritzed water and baby oil on the dancers to look like sweat, not that they needed it. By the time they’d moved through just a few minutes of their routine, they provided plenty of their own.

            “First positions! First positions!” yelled the director. Then the music slammed through the speakers. Dancers moved to the rhythm, pulsing in unison. Even after watching them throughout the week, I found their routine arousing: writhing, rubbing, slippery slick bodies moving against each other in sync to the music. Overhead sprinklers came on, drenching them. Water droplets flew from fingertips and hair.

            I checked my monitor for placement and light on the green-screened dancers off to the side. Post production went easier if the lighting was right the first time, and I constantly had to check that the cameramen shot the dancers in their entirety. I needed their feet in every shot for the apocalypse effect we’d drop behind them later. Directors seem to think that their mistakes can be fixed in post, but the process is way easier if the footage is right to begin with.

            An assistant choreographer tapped Emma Sophia on the shoulder. She didn’t respond at first, lost in her galaxy music. He shook her deferentially, but she still didn’t move. Her eyes were closed, but I could see them twitching, like dream sleep. Then she unfolded from the chair, sinuously, and took her spot on the stage. Strange, bell-like sounds came from her ear buds on the seat where she’d dropped them.

            I know musicians, some “real” ones, who think that Emma Sophia was just the pop flavor of the year, that she wasn’t serious or even artistic in any sense, but they never watched her dance live. She took the front and center position, fists up, elbows tight to her ribs, then she caught the beat in her legs and torso, and the dancers behind her mirrored her moves, like shadows or puppets attached to her strings, moving to her mutated mambo done with electric guitars and synthesizers and percussion machines. She lip-synced the lyrics.

            “No!  No!  No!” she said when the song ended. “The bridge is all wrong, and half of you are sleepwalking.” 

            I wondered how she decided that since, for most of the dance, the troupe had been behind her. She stalked among the dancers, who stepped aside.

            Emma Sophia showed them what she wanted. “When I do this,” she spun to one side and then did a complicated shuffle with her feet, “you need to be here.” She showed them the move.  The choreographer made changes to her notes.

            The director spluttered from behind the camera, “We’ll have continuity problems. Half of that’s already shot. You can’t change the routine without redoing everything.”

            Emma Sophia stopped in mid dance step, and glared into the darkness where the director sat. Water dripped in the background. Plink, plink, plink. But no one moved. No one spoke. I found myself gripping the chair’s arms.  

            The director’s voice, sounding resigned, said, “Or we can reshoot.”

            Emma Sophia nodded, then went through the routine again, moving dancers from spot to spot.

            Somebody said, not loud enough to reach the stage, “Forty-thousand dollars a day, and we’re three days behind.”

            Those folks who didn’t think Emma Sophia was serious didn’t see her work that day.  Multiple costume changes. They soaked the dancers over and over, including Emma Sophia.  She insisted they do the same twenty second segment dozens of times. “Not good. Not sharp,” she’d say. They ended the day when a male dancer collapsed. As the shoot’s doctor examined him, he said, “Just give me a minute. I’ll be fine.” He could barely wave his hand. “Don’t replace me.”

            Emma returned to the chair next to me, toweling her hair dry. “A good dance is like sex,” she said. “It’s not over until everyone is spent.” Her eyes sparkled with anticipation. I couldn’t tell that she’d been dancing all day. “Can I see the room now?”

            Suddenly, I was nervous. 

            The room was at the end of a long hallway. Fortunately, its outside walls were open to the studio. Running the power and video cables through a building’s walls would have been tough. As we approached, I slowed. “This could cause sensory overload,” I said. “Are you sure that you should...will you be safe?”

            She put her hand on my arm. “That’s sweet. They aren’t seizures, you know.”

            “Sorry. I didn’t mean to get personal.”

            We stopped at the door, and I realized how small Emma Sophia was. The top of her head didn’t reach my chin. In her videos, she seemed larger, dominating, almost a superhero or a goddess, a dancing pop deity.

            I showed her the remote, a modified game controller.

            “That’s power on-off, and this controls sound. The main function, though, is the joystick.  You use it to move through the galaxy like you’re flying a spaceship. You’ll be maneuvering through three dimensions, and it can get disorienting. If you mash the accelerator, you cover about ten light years in a second. You’d blast through the entire galaxy in an hour at that rate, or you can slow down, explore, hover over a sun.” I laughed as I handed the control to her. “You can even go into a sun, but it gets bright in here if you do.” 

            She opened the door. I’d set the displays to show a robin’s-egg blue for a default, but I found even the resting color made me a bit dizzy. I knew the Plexiglas held us two inches above the floor screens, but there was no way to judge distance. When the door closed, a rectangular hole in the robin-egg blue universe disappeared as the displays seemed to meld into the color on either side. Blue abyss loomed below and above. Limitless blue everywhere. 

            Emma Sophia said, “My god,” the blue reflecting off her cheeks and eyes. She rotated slowly, taking it in.

            “Let’s do it.” She pressed the start button on the control.

            The walls darkened, and I waited for the program to boot. Emma Sophia breathed softly beside me. In the darkness, I reached for her hand, but I pulled back before we touched.

            “We'll begin a hundred light years away, from the Earth side of M51,” I said.

            The galaxy brightened on the wall opposite from the door, stretching far above our heads and below our feet, a giant spiral swirl of violet gasses, maroon veins, and thousands of glittering suns. Other stars faded into existence around us. Other planetariums were cheap replications compared to this.

            Slowly, she accelerated us toward M51. Stars slid by overhead and underfoot. I stepped back to regain my balance and swallowed against the vertigo.

            “Sound,” she said. “I need a sound track.”

            “Volume and track selections on the side. Stellar recordings and your own stuff. You can do mixes too.”

            A leaden bell throbbed in the room, then a high hiss backed by a rhythmic tang, like a hammer tapping a bed spring. Her radio telescope star sounds.

            I needed to hold onto something solid, but other than Emma Sophia, there was nothing to grab, so I sat cross-legged on the Plexiglas, swaying in vertigo’s grip. She didn’t seem bothered, though. At first she just navigated toward the galaxy’s center, like an arrow plunging toward the bull's-eye, but soon she swooped from one side to the other, diving down so stars flew from wall to floor to wall to ceiling. She turned the sound volume higher and higher until the bass thrummed in my chest, then she aimed for a single star that swelled into a hundred-yard wide, fiery globe. I could imagine the heat baking against my face beyond Emma Sophia’s silhouette in a searing, pop star eclipse. A radio telescope rendered corona crackled and spat through the hidden speakers as great gas plumes shot from the surface, and Emma Sophia was just beginning.

            She laughed, a beautiful sound, before plunging us into the star itself. I clenched my eyes against the brightness, and then we were through, the star receding behind.

            “It’s the mambo,” she shouted above the rush of celestial music. Behind the stars’ whistles and tinny heart throbs and hornet buzzes, her mambo rose, and she began to dance with her galaxy.

            I’d watched all of Emma Sophia’s videos, the ones when she was a teen phenom, the older ones when she’d decided to throw off her innocent image, the scandalous ones, the sacrilegious ones, the award winners and the bombs. I knew her entire catalog, but I’d never seen her dance for herself. I’d never seen her dance in a galactic core, dancing for the stars and dancing for her music.

            And the universe spun for me, too. My inner ear didn’t help. Were we spinning, or had she started the stars on a slow rotation? Which direction was up? I felt for the Plexiglas, but I couldn’t touch it. I was floating. I was falling. Weightless in the illusion of perfectly rendered stars, and the midst of it, Emma Sophia, dancing, undulating, responding to the rhythms and being the rhythms. Over the mambo and stellar sounds, she laughed again, a delightful cascade of human joy. She laughed, passed by me, starlight glowing off her face, touched my shoulder as she moved, a momentary pressure. Then the stars rushed by. We were plunging or rising or crossing, and diamond lights stampeded past, for how long? How long? Time compressed or expanded, a lot of it maybe, almost as if we were traveling near the speed of light, as if we had accelerated ourselves to relativistic speed, but I had no sense. She’d danced now for ten minutes, or was it ten hours?

            She moved like a native creature, an outer space denizen who belonged in the abysses between the great suns. 

            We passed a ringed planet, like Saturn, and then an irregularly shaped rock, asteroid pitted, and deeply shadowed. A star whose leaping plasma jets turned the room orange, then mauve, brushed by, buzzing and crackling like bacon or a long wash of wave retreating from a stony beach.

            I wanted to close my eyes against the dizziness and the hallucinatory depths, but I couldn’t take my gaze off Emma Sophia. She no longer danced, facing the approaching stars as if she’d taken the boat’s prow. Her back was too me, her posture unnaturally rigid. The mambo slammed through the speakers, and I stared and stared.

            “Emma Sophia,” I cried to her. “Emma Sophia!” But she didn’t move, her feet apart, her hands resting, relaxed on her hips.

            Slowly, I braced myself until I was standing. Stars crept by, underfoot and overhead. In the distance, stars appeared to be heading straight toward us until they finally drifted to one side or the other, and above and below. We were falling through M51, unanchored in time and place.

            She didn’t react when I touched her arm, when I gently took the control from her hand.  The stars winked out, and the screens resumed their default blue. Up close, Emma Sophia’s eyes seemed shaped from glistening green marble, but they didn’t react when I blocked her vision.  They didn’t move when I shook her shoulder. She was gone, really gone.

            How long had we been in the room before I stopped the display? Were her security people looking for her yet? If they weren’t, they would be. We didn’t have long together before they would come, and I knew that wherever she had gone in her head was a long way away.  Would she come back? What was it like there?

            “I love...your sound,” I told her.

            I twitched the display control. The light faded and we stood among the stars. I turned the hisses and cackles up, faced M51’s glowing center, a million transcendent pinpricks in the dark fabric. If I stared in just the right way—if I listened with my eating-lion mind—maybe I could join her...maybe we could rush through the galaxy together, dancing, looking immolation in the face and becoming its shape and pattern and rhythm at last.

This story originally appeared in Stonecoast Review.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."