Constantino Serrano, Captain in the Chilean Army and Military Attaché was thirsty. He could endure a march of a day without much trouble, but the energy of his company still left her expended. Mademoiselle Dominique Demolle, a charming Parisian girl who worked in the diplomatic corps proved almost too much for him, to the point of not paying too much attention to the gigantic bust that France was building as a gift to the United States, which left Dominique awestruck.
"Don't you find it amazing?" she asked.
"It is... something else. Will they ever complete it?"
"Yes, to the best of my knowledge."
To the best of her knowledge. A simple phrase that betrayed her true job. They were, in a sense, colleagues. The work of a military attaché gave a veneer of acceptability to what he truly did. But they still liked her, and suspected that she liked him as well.
"My god, your lips are dry... why didn't you tell me you were thirsty?"
"I... I didn't want to bother you, Mademoiselle."
"Nonsense! Actually... I know just what you need right now."
And what he needed, apparently, was a giant metallic funnel. It was connected to a boiler, and steam occasionally poured from a valve. No boiler, though... unless that thing was it? But how could it work with no coal or visible fires?
It didn't matter. What it mattered was that the machine produced ice, and with it the possibility of an ice cold lemonade for the noon. He drank it in one go, mildly embarrassing himself in front of Dominique. It felt good, the chill pouring down his throat. It revived him, and gave him back his wits. Mademoiselle Demolle and Captain Serrano took another look at the machine. It funneled solar energy, concentrating it on a structure which then heated water, thus boiling it without a fire. Or rather, not one in this planet. Captain Serrano and his friend inquired a lot about the machine. It would replace coal, eventually. Or so its inventor claimed, Augustin Mouchot. A mild mannered fellow, who contrasted with the energy of Dominique. Constantino wondered if he would have met this man if he had followed his dream of becoming an engineer instead of becoming a man of arms like his family intended. Constantino wondered many things.
The day started sweet, but ended in tears. As the sun set, Dominique confessed her love for him, pleaded for him to stay with her, to make a new life in France. To ditch his military career, and to find a future together. Constantino struggled with himself. He wanted to say yes, he knew that the military life wasn't for him. He hated gunpowder, he hated war, and he hated himself for what he did to that Mapuche boy, back in the forest of the southern Chile. He told her that she deserved someone better, someone who didn't have his hands stained with blood.
A week later, he was embarking back to Chile.
Constantino and his men waited. Scouts had located a Bolivian column marching on his direction, and his unit was in the best position to intercept and ambush them. The only problem was, they were taking too much time, and his men were getting idle. It was midday, and the predicted arrival still hadn't come. Constantino inspected his men. They were sharp still, already accustomed to the merciless sun of the desert, and for the most part disciplined. Time and again, the bolivians broke against that discipline.
So he was surprised when he saw a few of his men drinking yerba mate. A hot drink meant a fire, and fire meant smoke. This whole operation would be risked by this one idiot. As if by reflex, he drew his revolver and asked who was responsible for it.
"I am." Answered a voice he knew. It came from Alejandro Puig, a crafty Corporal, and one of his best scouts. He knew he was valuable, and that he could get away with some insubordination.
"Are you aware of the risks involved with lighting a fire?"
"Yes, I am. I haven't lit one."
"And yet you had boiling water. How?"
"Let me show you."
He retrieved a dozen or so corvo knives, and arranged them in such a way to concentrate the reflection of the sun in one spot beneath a stove. Within minutes, the water inside was boiling. Wihout any advanced knowledge or theoretical understanding, Puig had recreated Mouchot's principles.
Memories of Paris came. Of Dominique Demolle, and of that last day in Paris. He remembered how that cold drink had changed his attitude, and maybe he'd lift morale and readiness by giving his men a treat. So he ordered Puig to demonstrate to the Company, the Décimo de Cazadores, Within the hour, every most men were enjoying a hot cup of mate. It was a small detail, but the spirits of his men were higher when they finally made contact with the enemy. It served them well, for the actual force was three times the one reported. The Bolivians were ragged and their morale was clearly low, but they still had numerical superiority.
But maybe they could exploit that. Maybe they could avoid further bloodshed by striking hard and fast. Catch them when they weren't expecting anything. And so, he ordered to proceed with the ambush. The Bolivians were either too confident or unprofessional. They didn't deploy any scouts or forward guard to screen traps. They paid for it, as the Chileans engaged in hit and run tactics. Small squads fired frantically on the Bolivians, who reacted too slowly. One squad sprang, fired a few shots and then disappeared behind the hills. Then another did the same. Then his own selected squad. Whatever fighing spirit the Bolivians had, it evaporated after a few hours. One man threw his gun, then another, then a dozen, then most of the rest.
By the time it was over, 150 Bolivians had surrendered, and 75 laid dead or dying. His casualties amounted to 8. Still, 150 men wouldn't die today. He was elated. Too elated to notice that a bullet to his foot had put him among those 8 casualties. But adrenaline wore off soon afterwards. Pain surfaced, and with it the realization that blood was everywhere. Conscience faded, flashes of Dominique holding him interrupted by Puig's desperate shouts. Paris and Tarapacá melding in his dimming mind. The Sun, touching his face and blinding his view.
By 1884, Chile had beaten both Peru and Bolivia and expanded north up to Tacna. The immense mineral wealth of the Antofagasta and Tarapacá provinces would be a boon to the economy of the young Republic. But the biggest treasure wasn't beneath the ground, but in the sky above.
Solar Energy wasn't a new concept in Tarapacá. A primitive desalinization plant had been developed in 1872, and there's evidence that the Inca used a similar device in some capacity for food preservation. But it wasn't until the industrialization of the now Chilean north that the region's true potential began to be exploited. No other part in the world received as much solar irradiance as northern Chile, and by a unique set of circumstances, a downtrodden French inventor and a wounded Chilean veteran would harness that energy.
Away from the Great Powers of the time, away from the politics and petty games between European monarchies, the seeds of the 20th Century were being sown in the desert.