For Alfredo Brigada Monjaraz and Carlos Pérez-Tejada y Salazar, in memoriam
The bronze bell in the mechanical brain rang, pulling Prince Salm Salm away from the security report he had been reading. There appeared on the spherical screen, which always reminded him of a submarine diving helmet, an electronic message.
Through the window of his office in Chapultepec Castle, he could see a pair of dirigibles slipping like lazy manatees through the clouds that covered the Valley of Mexico. A large screen on the side of the vehicle displayed the message “1863–1873 Ten Years of Prosperity.” Next to the words, the image of the Emperor’s face smiled down upon his subjects.
When he saw the name of the sender, the prince, who served as the Minister of the Interior for the Mexican Empire, was somewhat unsettled: J. N. Alponte. But what really bothered him was the message’s title: “La bête c’est mort.” The officer gave a small shudder. Could it be? For a moment he hesitated. If the message contained what he thought, it would go off like a bomb in the Empire.
The contingent of Swiss agents that made up the Office of Military Intelligence was charged with sifting through all the correspondence that arrived at the Ministry from every corner of the Empire. The messages that made it to his terminal had to be deemed important enough to interrupt him. There could be no mistake. It had to be.
The blinking words stared out at the prince through the glass bubble. After a moment of hesitation, he pulled the green silk rope for the pneumatic intercom system that connected his office to the palace kitchen.
“Yes, Sir?” answered the voice of the Hungarian chef.
“Tüdos, send me an espresso. Strong.”
“Right away, Sir.”
A few minutes later, a mechanical servant knocked on the door.
“Your coffee, Sir,” said the metallic droid, offering him a porcelain Talavera cup on a silver platter from Zacatecas. Without answering, the man took the cup and drained its contents. He returned it and ordered the droid to retire. The servile presence of these machines bothered him. He felt the calming effect of the coffee as the caffeine hit his bloodstream. Only then did he click on the message waiting on his terminal.
Amid the torrent of words that characterized the communiqués sent by the senile old Alponte, Salm Salm managed to decipher enough to confirm his suspicion. Without further delay, he pulled the red silk rope that connected him directly to the Emperor’s office.
“What’s happened, Felix?” asked Maximilian von Habsburg at the other end. This line was reserved for emergencies.
“Juárez has died, Your Majesty.”
After a brief moment of silence, the Emperor said, “Come to my office.”
The cold fury of January pelted the streets of Paris. Glacial wind whipped against the Mexican agent’s face. He wasn’t used to these temperatures, and his woolen English overcoat offered no protection as he walked along Boulevard Saint-Michel looking for the street where his appointment would take place.
Subjecting his hands to the cold once again, he pulled out a card to verify the address. This was it. He knocked. A grim-looking housekeeper opened the door. The man asked for Jean Martin Charcot, to which the servant replied, “Come in, Monsieur le docteur is waiting.” She turned to enter the office. The visitor hesitated before following. European customs, especially those north of the Pyrenees, were strange and confusing. Even the Spanish ones were odd, too, from time to time.
The woman pointed to a chair where he could sit, and then left him in the foyer. He looked over the diplomas hanging on the walls until, after what seemed like an eternity, the scientist appeared at the end of the hall.
“Doctor Charcot,” he replied in mangled French while shaking the man’s hand, “it is an honor to meet the father of psychocybernetics.”
“It’s still just a fledgling science, barely at the theoretical stage,” responded the doctor as he sat down and indicated to the visitor to do likewise. “Nevertheless, I am sure that it will have an impressive impact on the next century. But tell me . . . Please excuse me, but I have trouble pronouncing your last name. Your real last that name, that is.”
“Lerdo de Tejada.”
“How may I help you, Monsieur?”
Revealing his true identity upset Sebastián, who was the special envoy for the rebel forces of Mexican liberals. Was it a trap? He had spent so many months assuming the cover of Mister John Smith, a Canadian bearskin merchant who was visiting the City of Lights. If Napoleon’s secret police captured him, he would die, but not before suffering unspeakable torture. He decided, however, to trust this man. He took a breath. He needed to explain his purpose as clearly as possible in a language that he did not speak well.
“As you know, notwithstanding our current struggle, we have kept abreast of the most recent scientific advances. Your work, in particular, is of great interest to us.”
“We would have never dared introduce ourselves to you had it not been for your open sympathy for our cause.”
“Well,” said Doctor Charcot clearing his throat somewhat uncomfortably, “all I did was sign that letter that Baudelaire wrote. A number of intellectuals did the same: Charles, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Dostoyevsky, the group of five, that German journalist living in London . . .”
“Yes, that’s his name. I joined the cause because I was the only scientist.”
“Darwin also signed.”
A number of British and German thinkers had affixed their names to the international petition for Benito Juárez’s liberation. Sebastián was irritated by the Frenchman’s petulance, but decided to endure it for the rebellion’s sake.
“Honestly,” continued Charcot, “I signed the letter because it seemed inhumane to keep a man that old in that horrible prison. What was that place called?”
“San Juan de Ulúa.”
“The images that Baudelaire posted on his Web site were shocking. Beyond that, I support the free determination of new nations. They have the right to self-governance without European intervention. This, however, does not make me a sympathizer with the rebellion.”
“You have received me in your home.”
“I am granting an audience to Mr. Smith, a Canadian peddler of bearskins.”
Sebastián knew there would be resistance. French citizens in league with the enemies of Napoleon III or who threatened his interests risked their lives. He decided to try another approach.
“Fine, doctor, I will be brief. In practical terms, is it possible to digitize an individual’s personality as you theorize? Can memory be perpetuated through a mechanical brain?”
“That is what I maintain.” The scientist’s demeanor changed while speaking about his work. “These are, of course, merely theories. The procedure I have developed with my assistants would require the absolute destruction of the nervous system, and there have been no volunteers willing to participate in the experiment. We have had success with monkeys, but a human being . . . It would have to be a hopeless case, someone in the terminal stage of illness. And even then it would be impossible to guarantee a successful digitalization . . .”
Sebastián swallowed. Despite the cold, a nervous sweat broke out across his brow. “Doctor, we have a volunteer.”
Charcot’s eyes shone. Without saying a word, both of them know who they were talking about.
How could we not lose? We were practically fighting with sticks and stones against the elite forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Every time we destroyed one of their soldiers, two or three new droids appeared. They blasted us with chemical fire from their dirigibles and leveled our rustic barricades with their smart bombs. Decades of hunger and ignorance weakened our humble troops as they stood before the invading enemy’s supermen. We had no chance. Before we knew it, the Republic had fallen and burned to ash, while the usurping government established an illegitimate monarchy on the ground where our fathers had spilled their blood to give us liberty. Dark times came, brothers and sisters, nights without end during which we fled from the enemy until they overtook us. Confined in the most humiliating dungeons designed to hold criminal scum, the sun seemed to hide itself from the nation and its rays never came through the bars to comfort us. Some, like Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, closed their eyes forever at the hopelessness of unjust imprisonment and perished. I, myself, feared that I would never again breathe the morning air without shackles on my wrists and ankles. But today, a new light breaks on the horizon of our struggle. Today, international solidarity has liberated us from humiliating confinement. We retreat, taking our rebellion into exile to await better times and to regroup our forces. Today the embers of hope warm our heart. You are not alone, brothers and sisters. To you we send our love and solidarity. Remember that there is no eternal night.
From somewhere in North America,
Benito Juárez, president in exile
(Fragment of an electronic message from the rebel Web page. Access to this page is punishable by death within the territory of the Mexican Empire.)
In person Maximilian I of Mexico appeared much taller than he looked on the newsreels that were projected by magic lanterns in the theaters and on the newscasts. His blond beard had started to gray, and his face was crisscrossed with wrinkles. But his eyes, of a blue that brought to mind the color of the sky minutes before a downpour, conserved a youthful spark that was easier to perceive than to describe. At official events the monarch wore the dress uniform of the Mexican army designed by the Empress and made in Brussels by her family’s royal tailor. During his other public appearances he was seen wearing custom Italian slippers, black frock coat, wide-brimmed hat, silk shirt, and gray pants, all tailor-made by his couturier at Harrod’s of London. Within the intimate confines of his office, protocol was a little more lax and allowed for more informal dress in accordance with the latest Parisian fashions. There were times like this when he even wore silk guayaberas from the Yucatán, cotton pants, and huaraches just like the ones worn by those he lovingly called “my little Indians,” even though the emperor’s size would have been colossal compared to theirs.
Notwithstanding the informality of his garb, when the Prince Salm Salm entered the imperial offices, he found the monarch’s faces lined with concern.
“Has the news been confirmed, Felix?” Maximilian asked without preamble. From the other side of the mahogany desk Father Agustin Fischer, the emperor’s personal secretary, watched the Minister of the Interior with the same preoccupation.
“It has, Highness. I have confirmed it by telegraph with the French intelligence services. This is not another one of Alponte’s delusions. There must be some reason that General Miramón trusts him.”
“Scheisse,” grumbled the emperor, ignoring his own prohibition against speaking any language but Spanish in the Palace.
“That damned Indian could not have chosen a worse time to die,” the priest muttered.
“You mean President Juárez, Father,” corrected Maximilian, who was always keen to follow custom.
“Regardless of what you would have us call him, Your Majesty,” Salm Salm interjected, “it is clear that we are at a crossroads.”
“Of course, his death transforms him into some kind of martyr for his cause,” replied the priest, “even though it will also dash the hopes of some of his sympathizers. Dead dogs don’t bite.”
“The corpse of an enemy always smells sweet,” quoted the prince.
“Gentlemen, I believe that we are getting off track. Tell me, Felix, do we know how he died?”
“Yes, Majesty. He died of respiratory complications, apparently contracted while in the dungeon at San Juan de Ulúa. He was sixty-six years old.”
“Still in New Orleans?”
“Yes, Sire. The North American government, however, has made no official statement. The story occupied a modest place in the local news. It received little international coverage.”
“His image was damaged, Max,” said Father Fischer, “after so many years of silence, promising a return that never happened. With Baudelaire dead, he had no one to handle his public relations.”
“The question, Your Majesty,” said the minister, “is the following: do we announce the news or not?”
“It will surely have a devastating effect on the local rebels,” replied Fischer. “It will completely demoralize the subversives.”
“Or it will give them a saint to worship,” the emperor added glumly.
“Do not blaspheme, my son.”
“With the celebrations of the Empire’s tenth anniversary just around the corner, Highness, the news will have an important effect on the local populace.” Salm Salm was thinking about the graffiti that had begun blossoming like fungus on the city’s walls: “Viva Juárez.” It was a consistent phenomenon despite the threat of summary judgment and execution to whomever was found painting them. Every day they seemed to multiply.
“Sooner or later they will find out. It would be better if we make an official statement before the rumors start spreading. Felix, contact Aguilar y Marquecho,” Maximilian ordered.
The prince did not have time to say, “as you command, Your Majesty,” because the office door slammed open and startled the three men. In the doorway a naked woman stood staring defiantly at them. Her body was covered with a sticky substance that looked like tar or molasses and the word “vagina” was scribbled across her chest in lipstick.
The emperor wanted to shout, but his wife’s name got stuck in his throat as she began to speak in a guttural voice, advancing upon the three men with solemn steps and leaving a trail of black footprints on the marble floor.
“You have to let your fingernails grow for fifteen days,” the Empress began to recite. “Oh, how sweet it is to then brutally rip the sleeping babe from its crib and, when he opens his eyes wide, pretend to gently stroke his beautiful hair.”
The woman approached the paralyzed Father Fischer. She sat on his lap and began to seductively lick his face. The priest only managed to mumble, “Leave her in peace, Satan.”
She continued her litany: “Then, when he least expects it, you quickly drive your nails into his tender chest, taking care not to kill him because if he dies you won’t be able to remember the spectacle of his misery later.”
With catlike grace Carlota leapt upon her husband’s desk. She gazed at him with the intensity of a cobra staring down the snake charmer, the blue of her eyes glimmering against her blackened face. The tar dripped onto the emperor’s papers in slow, sticky lines.
“Next you drink his blood, licking his wounds. During that time, which should be long just as eternity is long, the child cries. As I have just said, nothing is sweeter than his blood, still warm, except for his tears, bitter like salt.”
The first to react was Prince Salm Salm, who pushed the alarm button. Seconds later the emperor’s mechanical guard, two bronze droids, entered the room and moved toward the woman.
“Don’t hurt her! She is the Empress!” Maximillian cried.
“Take her to her quarters and give her a dose of morphine. She needs to be ready for this afternoon,” the minister ordered.
As they dragged her from the room, the empress left a greasy streak on the floor but never stopped shrieking: “Haven’t you ever tasted your own blood when you accidentally cut yourself? It’s sooo good, right?”
When her screams dissipated through the castle halls, a heavy silence fell over the office. Paralyzed by his wife’s increasingly frequent deliriums, the emperor could not stop a tear from sliding down his cheek while Father Fischer continued blessing himself and praying in Latin. Prince Salm Salm could not help thinking that if he hadn’t averted his eyes, he might have seen the Empress, squatting on the desk, digging her fingers in her blood-caked pubis.
From the unpublished memoirs of Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, president of Mexico from 1874 to 1880:
There are many legends that have been woven around the Juárez rebellion. Many stories that the people have used to embellish the struggle of the patriotic men and women who continued resisting until the end. And many of those anecdotes have become legend.
The time has come to illuminate those shadowy places where memory has stagnated and become hazy with the passing years.
In the twilight of my life, I consider it an obligation to the nation to write this memoir in order to shine a little light on that fundamental period of our history.
[. . .]
I convinced Doctor Charcot to aid our cause though this was no small task. With the first part of the mission complete, the more complicated part lay before us.
To better grasp the situation, it should be understood that in that moment, like Jonah in the belly of the beast, I was a rebel who had infiltrated an enemy nation, the military arm of the empire that held our country hostage. Frequently I imagined myself being pursued by the secret police of Napoleon III. And, as I was able to learn after the peace accords with France, my life was in constant peril. Nevertheless some twist of fate always favored me and the cause: a door that was left open to allow us an escape route, an unexpected friend of the rebellion who hid me for a few days in a loft in Montmartre, or a makeup artist from the local theater who taught me the mysteries of her vocation and thus enabled me to avoid capture by changing my appearance in tavern bathrooms or shops.
After making contact with the doctor, it was necessary to smuggle him to the Americas, a task that was made all the more difficult by the diplomatic distance that separated our neighbors to the North and the Napoleonic government. While the imperial occupation usurped our legitimate government, civil war devastated the United States.
By the same token, we had to transport Doctor Charcot’s vast array of experimental equipment for the procedure. It was the same delicate machinery that had been manufactured in Switzerland under the doctor’s supervision and that he had used for simian testing.
For security reasons we could not begin our voyage until we were sure that the equipment had arrived in New Orleans. It was shipped under the name of a shell company that the rebellion had been using for commercial transactions for years.
The wait gave us a number of months to prepare for the trip, time which, needless to say, was no European vacation.
Our logistics agents managed to outfit us with counterfeit documents that showed Doctor Charcot and the boy to be one Monsieur André Gürtler and his son, Swizz citizens whose political neutrality would facilitate their movement through different countries.
The next step was to change the scientists’ appearance such that they would be unrecognizable to their closest companions. Alleging the need to attend a conference in Vienna, both men pretended to leave for Austria, but got off the train seconds before departure, thus tricking their respective families, and arrived at a modest hotel in Pigalle that the rebellion paid for at great cost.
Always a sympathizer to our cause, Monsieur Baudelaire, who was already quite ill, offered to help me dye our friends’ hair. A haircut and shave greatly transformed the neurologist’s appearance, whose own mother would not have recognized him.
Jules Verne could have composed one of his scientific romances with the adventures that we endured from the moment we boarded the ship Marie Eugènie, as when a customs officer seemed to question the documents of Doctor Charcot’s young assistant, which had been so carefully produced by our printer at the Republic’s mint (getting that artist from the town of Tacuba to New Orleans was material enough for one of Salgari’s novels). We spent days in anguish when we discovered an imperial Mexican agent on board the ship, a spy whom Monsieur le docteur and I, at the risk of our very lives, had to take care of. Weeks later we reached the shores of Louisiana and met with the rebel leaders. The President was on the verge of death.
Only once we arrived in New Orleans, when I knew we were safe, did I take the opportunity to speak with Doctor Charcot’s assistant. I had never before waited so long to ask someone his name. His real name.
“Sigmund Freud, Sir,” he responded with a smile for the first time since I had met him.
Just as they did every night at 8:15 pm, television sets in every Mexican household displayed the national seal on their round screens while the Imperial Mexican march played. After a few bars during which patriotic citizens who feared God stood at attention, a haughty voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Imperial Mexican News.”
The face of a man approaching old age appeared on the screen. A banner composed in a modern Times font identified him as Ignacio Antonio Aguilar y Marquecho. He was a sullen man, not easily given to smiles, with a face bracketed by enormous headphones, who delivered the official news of the Empire of Anahuac night after night. “Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. Good health to you if you have already eaten, and bon appétit if you have yet to do so,” he repeated as usual. “This is the news from the Empire.”
The screen showed the image of a happy fieldworker cutting sugarcane with a machete. Aguilar y Marquecho’s voice spoke of increases in agricultural production and rattled off percentages while the statistics rolled over the farmer. Few had any inkling that the man in the picture which appeared on their screens in every televised show was really a Moroccan sailor who had been selected by a Parisian advertising company that filmed the segment on the outskirts of Havana.
After the agricultural report came the imperial report, which kept citizens abreast of His Majesty’s activities: “This morning the Emperor of all Mexico met privately with his cabinet and later received a visit from Ferdinand de Lesseps. As is well known, this eminent French engineer is currently overseeing the construction of the Tehuantepec Canal, which will join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A true feat of human ingenuity.” On the screen Lesseps shakes hands with Maximilian I, and later they are seen conversing in the emperor’s office. No one hears the Frenchmen’s bitter complaints about the indigenous guerilla forces that were interrupting advances on the project.
“In the afternoon, His Majesty and the Empress inaugurated the new San Fernando Orphanage in the town of Tlalpan, which will be overseen by Franciscan sisters. As it is well known, the previous convent of this order was destroyed by the intolerance and anticlericalism of the ancien régime in 1861.” While the reporter spoke, Maximilian and Carlota cut the inaugural ribbon, surrounded by nuns and clergy, most notably Father Fischer. In the next shot, the Empress strokes the chest of a young orphan. Her gaze is absent, her smile glacial. The program did not air footage of the protesters who had gathered outside the orphanage calling for the liberation of political prisoners or how the mounted antiriot police laid waste to them.
Halfway through the transmission Aguilar y Marquecho asked viewers, “Tonight’s viewer poll is: Do you agree that the uniforms of our armed forces should be redesigned for the crown’s ten-year anniversary? If your answer is yes, call the following number . . .” After the poll there was a long society segment populated with the same faces of the Mexican oligarchy that showed night after night. A wedding for the Betancourts and the Lascuráins, a tamal dinner at the Corcuera family’s hacienda, the debutante ball for one of the Espinoza de los Monteros girls, the premiere of the latest French film about the construction of the Suez Canal in the city’s theater, the inauguration of the zarzuela season at the Lírico Theater, the weekly reception at some embassy. The rose-colored stories continued until the end of the program.
But on this occasion, this singular night, the grave reporter shared one more story, a short colophon to close out the night: “Yesterday Pablo Benito Juárez García died of heart failure in New Orleans, Lousiana, where he has stayed since being banished by the Empire. Juárez García was the last president of the ancien régime. May he rest in peace. Good night.”
“It will mean liberty,” said one of the hooded figures to begin the session. “Or death,” responded a chorus of all those present, including the two foreigners. The lights came on and everyone removed their masks. The first to speak had been Guillermo Prieto. The rebel leaders had gathered for a special session in one of the auditoriums of the medical school in New Orleans. Securing the location had been difficult, but the rebellion’s few remaining allies had helped. Seated in armchairs, the Mexican liberals focused their attention on the machine.
It looked like the skeleton of a great bird, with thousands of gears controlling the movements of its mechanical extremities. With clockwork precision and guided by a mechanical brain, the device manipulated the scythe-like blade at the end of each steely arm and the delicate metal tentacles that transferred the severed pieces to a glass slide in its belly.
Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada cleared his throat, quieting his comrades and calling for attention. “Gentlemen, the time has come.” A stretcher was brought into the operating room, and on it lay the deteriorating President Juárez. Despite his illness, the old man maintained a fierce, sharp look. Physical suffering had withered his body but his mind was clear. That was all they needed. “Um . . . And now for a few words from Doctor Charcot,” Sebastián said as he retired to one corner of the room.
The Frenchman had come to love these men. All of them had been well-heeled officials in the Republican government, but they had sacrificed everything for their losing struggle against the European powers. Failure was all but inevitable unless something happened. That was why Charcot was there.
“Gentlemen, I will be brief.” His Spanish had improved tremendously even if the guttural sound of his double R’s betrayed his nationality. “We are about to witness an historic event. You will see the first digitalization of the human mind. For me it is an honor that the first volunteer has been your leader, an extraordinary man. I will not bother you with technical jargon. The procedure will take place as follows. After anesthetizing the patient with morphine, we will carefully open the cranium by removing the skull cap to reveal the brain. The machine will then make minute incisions—less than one half millimeter each—in Monsieur Juárez’s brain and then transfer the . . . let us call them slices . . . to this glass slide to be photographed. After reading and analyzing the information collected from each slice, the machine’s mechanical brain will reassemble the patient’s mind and memories in the form of a three-dimensional digital file. If all goes well, we will have an electronic model of President Juárez, his memories, his dreams, his fears, his ideas . . .”
“And what good will that do us?” It was Mariano Escobedo, an exceptional strategist and military counselor who understood little beyond the realm of weaponry and tactics.
“First and foremost, we will save our leader,” the physician pronounced the word “our” with complete conviction. “For all intents and purposes we will be granting him eternal life. Just imagine! President Juárez will become an intelligent being in the digital world. He will be able to infiltrate the enemy’s electronic systems, destroy their archives, transmit false information, and wreak administrative chaos. It would be a devastating attack without an army. He would be like . . . like an incurable virus.”
“And what if it doesn’t work?” Escobedo pushed.
“Then we will have a corpse with a completely destroyed brain. Shall we proceed, Monsieur le Président?”
From the stretcher, Benito Juárez directed a glance at Sebastián. In all the years they had known each other, Lerdo de Tejada had never seen such an expression of fear from his leader. Even when they faced execution in Guadalajara. Juárez was a strong, proud Indian. He would have to find a response that honored his stature. “Now or never, Mr. President.”
The Zapotec hero turned toward the French doctor and quietly nodded. Then he closed his eyes for the last time.
“Initiate the sequence, Sigmund,” Charcot ordered.
The gears began turning.
The great day.
Ten years of Empire.
The most important celebration of Maximilian I of Mexico’s life. And yet everything was going wrong.
That morning while he showered, he discovered that there was no hot water in Chapultepec Castle. The palace’s hydraulic systems, controlled by the central mechanical brain, simply refused to deliver anything but ice-cold water.
His days of military service had taught him to endure these little hardships, but not the Empress. A cold bath had triggered another one of her episodes.
“It might be a good idea to give Carlota a dose of morphine, Father,” he muttered with his eyes closed to his personal secretary. “Just a small dose.”
“Right away, Max,” Fischer responded, immediately giving the order to a medical droid. The droid, however, approached the empress and delivered a blow that left her unconscious.
The palace’s operations chief could not explain the actions of the malfunctioning robot, which the emperor had deactivated by kicking it to pieces.
Everything seemed to be in order. And yet everything was going wrong.
An hour later, Prince Salm Salm suggested a last-minute change of plans: the emperor should not ride at the head of the parade that would go from Chapultepec Castle to the city’s Plaza Mayor.
“I recommend that you preside from the imperial balcony, Sir. All of these mishaps seem suspicious to me,” the minister murmured into the emperor’s ear while Maximilian attempted to drink the vile liquid that the automatic coffee maker had vomited in his cup.
As he watched the ladies in waiting try to cover up the bruise on Carlota’s face, the emperor decided that it would be best not to invite any attempts on his life. They would all be much safer on the balcony.
“Felix,” he said to the minister, “get me General Miramón. I want the security detail doubled.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
It took fifteen minutes for the call to go through to the War Secretary. Static on the line made communication virtually impossible.
“Something is going on, Father, and I do not like it,” the emperor nervously told Fischer moments before stepping onto the balcony.
The priest only managed to mutter a few incomprehensible words. Fear was written across his face.
Only when Maximilian I of Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, Emperor of Mexico and the Caribbean, stepped out onto the balcony did he comprehend the magnitude of what was happening. Suddenly his empire did not seem as prosperous or peaceful as the nightly news, the official press, and the government spokesmen declared it to be.
A terrible sight rolled out before his eyes. One of the dirigibles patrolling the skies fell upon the forward ranks of the parading imperial Mexican army and crushed the First Battalion of droid soldiers, the War Secretary, and his undersecretary, Mejía, along with most of the imperial armada’s high ranking officers.
The dirigible burst into flames where the emperor would have been standing at the head of his troops. Onlookers fled the flames in horror.
Maximilian’s confusion grew when he heard his mobile phone ring. Only Carlota, Father Fischer, and Felix Salm Salm had that number. All three of them were standing next to him, watching the chaos that engulfed the city.
Shaken, Maximilian answered, “Yes.”
He knew the voice. Its sober tone was unmistakable. A slight metallic reverberation made it sound artificial, mechanical. Not human.
“Maximilian, we meet again.”
“I never thought I’d set foot on my homeland again or smell its earth. Well, I don’t think that will ever happen, at least not in my current state. But I have returned.”
“It cannot be! You are dead! I saw the photographs that my agents took in New Orleans.”
“My dear Emperor, losing a battle does not mean losing the war. This time the rebels have the advantage. Remember, weeds never die. They just . . . digitize.”
“What are you talking about? Juárez?! Answer me!”
The line went dead.
It was Father Fischer who drew Maximilian’s attention to the skies.
On the side of each dirigible, the image of the smiling emperor was replaced with the serious face of a Zapotec Indian. The phrase “1863–1873 Ten Years of Prosperity” disappeared and, in their place, appeared “Mexico for Mexicans.”
Maximilian listened to the deafening applause from the crowds on the Paseo Imperial. Above, Juárez’s face smiled down from every screen.
“La Bestia Ha Muerto” © by Bef. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Brian L. Price. All rights reserved.