Lucetta’s white parachute descended onto the moistening snow with the measured elegance of the train of a wedding dress stroking the white marble floor of a gothic cathedral as the snow wrapped around her many layers like a ball of cotton wool.
The snow covered ground was indivisible from the sky, which was as white as an unblemished canvas; they were joined together by the thickening mist and like the unexpected appearance of a camera trick in an otherwise straightforward genre movie, this skewered her sense of perspective as a distant star penetrated the blanketed sky, emitting an aureate blade of light that was scattered by the blanched haze into a thousand shards of light that appeared to her as if a large galaxy had been shrunk and transported to her immediate gaze.
She peered at an apricot floating in the distance and followed it with the enthusiasm of a child chasing her first butterfly, but as she drew nearer the optical illusion corrected itself as the apricot transformed into a steel behemoth.
As tall as a double-decker bus with eight grey wheels turning hypnotically in unison, the machine stopped alarmingly close to her feet. A tall man lent out his hand and helped her onto the machine, his face was covered by a balaclava but his eyes gleamed at hers. They were minute green eyes with greying lashes.
“Sorry I’m late - the storm. Were you waiting long?”
“A little while, that’s all.”
“The resemblance - its remarkable.”
She already knew a great deal about his personal and professional life. Martin had been sent to the South Pole nineteen months ago to fix a leak in one of the twenty one generators that were positioned on the South Pole. They generated power for over a third of the Sectors; knowledge of their location required a Level 5 Security Clearance in order to prevent the insurgents from uncovering its location. In fact, when the problem was initially discovered, it was suspected that they were responsible for the generators’ technical problems. The ensuing riots only seemed to confirm this.
Although Martin had been able to repair the problem within a few hours, the South Pole was so difficult to reach that the cities affected by the generators’ technical problems were without electricity for five days. Therefore the authorities decided to station Martin at the South Pole permanently. With annual temperatures averaging -18°C, the nearest Sector being four hundred and twenty miles away and with a population of zero, they thought they would have some difficulty convincing Martin to move to the South Pole.
Martin had never seen snow before his excursion and struggled with the shivering temperatures. When he was informed that the authorities wanted him to manage the generators on a permanent basis, he instinctively informed them that the only way that he would remain in the South Pole was if the movie star Brigitte Bergman moved with him. To his surprise, the authorities consented.
Lucetta was not told how the authorities had managed to convince Brigitte to join Martin, but the major story of her disappearance after a plane crash now made much more sense.
She was Brigitte’s replacement, but unlike Brigitte, she came from a modest background. Three weeks ago, she was seized from her studio flat by the police and was flown to Sector 2743889. When her blindfold and handcuffs were removed, she found herself in a room with twelve other girls who looked strikingly similar to herself and Brigitte Bergman.
They were informed that they would receive a large sum of money if they agreed to undergo surgery to look like Brigitte and move to the South Pole. However, only one of them would receive that sum of money, the rest would walk away empty handed. Seeing the zeros at the end of the number on offer, each girl accepted the offer without hesitation.
Lucetta underwent less surgery than the rest of the girls. She had an abdominoplasty, a brow lift, a suture facelift, microdermabrasion to remove a scar on her left inner thigh, pinnaplasty to pin back her ears and a nose job.
She was informed that although two of the other girls may have ended up being better Brigitte’s than her, as her surgery was completed far faster than theirs, she would be the new Brigitte Bergman. She received ten per cent of the payment immediately to shop for her trip. However, she was only allowed to purchase clothes from designers that Brigitte wore. Four days later, her trip to the South Pole began, the final leg of which involved her parachuting to an undisclosed location where she would be collected by Martin.
The last question she had asked her minders was, ‘what happened to Brigitte?’ They told her that she had become increasingly agitated with the hermetic lifestyle of the South Pole. At first, the financial package had compensated for her new surroundings; she even took a liking to Martin and was happy to marry him. Then, when she saw the eulogies she received from people who had openly despised her, she was pleased that her star burned brighter than before. But in the last few weeks, she would tell her video diary how bored she felt as well as admitting to having suicidal thoughts.
When Martin was informed of this he reluctantly agreed to let her return, but the authorities did not concur. Martin reported her death to the team two days after her green sensor switched off and refused to remove her from the small igloo where they spent their weekends. The igloo and his truck were the two places that the authorities had no access to, so they did not know what he had done with her.
The only reason, they said, that they were informing Lucetta of this information, was to quell her curiosity but more importantly to ensure that she did not make similar inquiries to Martin.
Martin had not asked for a replacement, but the sharp decrease in his work output meant that they were forced to develop this innovative and drastic measure. They had hoped that she would subdue his grief and help him return to his normal productivity levels.
What they didn’t tell her was that if and when she was successful, they would send a new engineer who would be trained by Martin to replace him, and then she and Martin would be disposed of. If she did not succeed, an AI robot prototype would have to replace him five years earlier than scheduled, but the end result for Martin and Lucetta would be the same.
As she sat self-consciously on the large white leather chair that devoured her petite frame, she gazed at the generators in the distance; their largesse gradually suffocated the surrounding landscape of its albescent splendour.
“They only told me you were coming here two days ago, after all of your luggage arrived. I thought it was B’s stuff, but then they told me what their plan was. I was angry, but now you’re here, I can’t say I’m displeased. Even with all those layers on; that figure of yours, it’s almost identical.”
“Would you like a tour of the generators or do you want to head straight to the house?”
“I really don’t mind.”
“Are you sure? B always knew exactly what it was she wanted.”
His eyes now wore an expression of sadness coupled with desperation.
“Oh, in that case...”
“I wasn’t complaining. Your attitude is the opposite of hers, which may not be the worst thing. I’m just so used to her mannerisms and temperament. Those buffoons are so idiotic - am I correct in assuming that they ensured you looked like her and didn’t give you any briefing about her personality. And don’t worry - they can’t hear a word of what we say in here.”
“They made me watch Hail the Size of Apples and The Glass Book. They said they were your favourite films of hers.”
“Bureaucrats have the intellectual and imaginative curiosity of a pack of lemmings. They had thousands of hours of film of her in the generator and in most of the house. And...”
She took two of her jackets off so that she was only wearing her tight red jumper.
“Let’s go straight to the igloo.”
They sat in silence for the fifteen minutes it took to drive to the igloo. As they stopped a few metres away from the igloo, Lucetta put her jackets back on and tied up her hair in the pink elastic band she had tied around her right wrist. The igloo was half the height of the vehicle and its entrance was so low they both had to crawl through it.
The snow was softer than it had been when she had parachuted to the ground earlier; the snow now crumbled beneath her knee-high boots, yet it was also much colder as her cheeks blushed with a deepening red, like the metamorphosis in pigmentation of an autumnal leaf.
Hesitantly, she crawled through the narrow passageway. Returning to her knees as she reached the other side, the first thing she saw was the bright green Valentino Garavani dress that Brigitte had worn when she collected her Oscar for the film This City.
Next, she marvelled at the bright copper bath tub that lay in the middle of the igloo. It was instantly recognisable: it was the famous Archeo Copper Bathtub and it cost more than most sports cars. Her fascination with the tub meant it took a few seconds to realise that Brigitte was lying naked inside. Her first reaction was of intrigue rather than horror, as she observed that her own abdominoplasty meant that their waist shape was identical.
Martin crouched by the bath tub, with his drained eyes fixated on his wife.
“I need you to help me embalm her feet. As you can see the rest of her is already embalmed, but for some reason I cannot go near her feet. And now, they’re decomposing – if she was here she’d be furious with me. Seeing you in that jumper, it was as if I was looking at a holograph of my deceased wife. For the first time, I realised she was gone – I need you to help me complete her last wish.”