Nuclear fusion: Santa’s sneakiest surprise gift yet

One hundred and forty-two lasers pounded away at a tiny little button made of coal.

Scientists scurried around the device shouting scientific things, and they wore lab coats just like in movies, to make it quite clear that they were scientists.

The four adventurers stood awkwardly in the least-used corner of the lab, surrounded by dusty clutter and tangled-wire machines and fluttery paper reports containing things just as indecipherable as the magical ancient runes they’d found in that frozen palace so many weeks before. They watched the lab’s hubbub in silence.

Though they were definitely not scientists, they were critical to the endeavor unfolding before them. This was the final stage in their adventure. They’d brought a critical message from an unlikely source to the head scientist, telling her the experiment needed to begin Now. The moment had been pretty dramatic and actually really cool but that was done now — the final scene was well and truly underway.

Yes, it had been a long and rambling Christmas adventure, and our protagonists now found their final scene playing out in poetic fashion on Christmas Eve. They’d set out to accomplish Santa’s final wish — for Santa had disappeared, leaving only a half-filled notebook in his cabin in the north. The notebook described his final, ultimate Christmas gift to the whole world — Nuclear Fusion.

But Santa had disappeared under mysterious circumstances before he could give his final gift. The motley band of adventurers aimed to see Santa’s final mission concluded. The four had been pulled together from all the corners of the earth — and potentially from further even than that, for none of them truly knew the origins of the bandana-man, the fourth quietest of their number and their ostensible captain.

The second most quiet party member, a young woman with an extremely well-pocketed vest, looked at the assembly of lasers with concern. She was the first to feel a whisper of doubt as to whether they’d done the right thing, telling the head scientist to begin the experiment at this exact moment. The magic water she’d found late in the first act granted her the ability to see with vague certainty whether something was going to work out or not — and it appeared that this Christmas miracle might not happen after all. She sensed that there was an issue with the experiment — their entire adventure might be thrown into doubt.

The scientific things the scientists shouted back and forth took on a timbre of concern — tinged with panic. There was something wrong with the lump of coal they were using for the fusion reaction. It was absorbing all the energy from the lasers — but there was no sign that it was giving any back!

Typical, thought the third quietest and most ragtaggy of of the ragtag band, among other somewhat defeatist thoughts. He’d once worked at an ice cream shop, so he knew how awful humanity could be first-hand. Like most cynics, in his deepest depths, he hoped to be proven wrong, in a poetical and dramatic fashion, preferably at Christmas.

He rarely was.

Earth always takes and never gives back — especially this time of year, he muttered internally, the words threatening to rapidly reach the weight of a revelation.

He was not wrong. The laser array was pounding away at the little chunk of coal suspended hanging like an ornament in the core of the device below them. The lasers were giving everything they had, and the coal was taking it all and barely giving anything back.

The bandana man thought nothing in particular. He simply adjusted his bandana and watched.

It’s not supposed to end this way! thoughtcast the quietest member of the team — they were all quite quiet, really; it had not been a talkative adventure, this one. It can’t end this way! This member was a telepathic sloth who always wore themed sweaters. In the second act, he’d been given a magic Christmas sweater made of the same fabric that enabled Santa’s reindeer to fly. He wore it now with pride. It won’t end like this! We’ll find a way! He decided to give a beaming measure of encouragement to everyone in the room by smiling at each in turn. This kept him occupied for most of the final scene.

The flaw in the experiment was clear. The old lasers did their best, but that little lump of coal at the heart of the machine was not going to create the miracle these scientists — and their strange, uninvited guests — had been hoping for.

‘We need a better nubbin!’ the head scientist cried. ‘WE NEED A BETTER NUBBIN!’

Things were looking dire. The head scientist shouted about nubbins, the shrillness of her voice rapidly approaching frequencies inaudible to most humans. One researcher with a poofy beard began to sob uncontrollably, the flood of his tears short circuiting a sciency-looking device. A junior scientist somehow dropped her glasses and stepped on them in one graceful and coordinated moment of clumsy destruction. The Christmas playlist someone had put on was stuck on Jingle Bell Rock. Alarm sensors began to ring out for no apparent reason.

Then, something like a lightbulb shattered by an exclamation point arrow went off in the brain of the second quietest member of the ragtag band. With frantic hands, she pulled a velvet case from a pocket on her puffy polypocketed vest.

‘Will this do, ma’am?’ she asked the shouting scientist. She had to clear her throat because she didn’t speak very loudly, and what she did manage to say was drowned out by the inconsolable sobbing of the broken crying scientist, whose sobs had been joined by a pack of other scientists, all wailing like sad cartoon coyotes. Then the bandana man whistled to pierce the chaos. All the scientists went quiet and looked to the woman with the vest, who hadn’t whistled, but did look like she had something to say.

She opened the velvet case with an imaginative flourish and something inside gleamed like a promise with a lifetime guarantee. Everyone wearing a labcoat gathered around the gleaming nubbin, amazed.

‘Where did you get this,’ the head scientist asked with wonder, for no microscope was needed to confirm it was perfect.

It was the diamond from the ring of the late Mrs. Claus — but of course the adventurer could not tell that to this innocent group of scientists, for fear that the fallen elves might come for them, too. This gem was the pocketed adventurer’s boon from the second act. It was a dragon tear. Like all the best gifts, it had seemed like a curious but useless thing when she first received it.

‘May I?’ asked the head scientist. The woman of puffy pockets nodded. The scientist plucked the jewel from the velvet case, leapt across the room to the laser array, extracted the coal from the heart of the machine with great skill, and placed the diamond in the void with the deft hands of someone who connects upwards of 4,000 puzzle pieces per month.

The lasers hummed their holiday hum. They seemed to smile, for even they could tell — there was something different about this diamond, something far more mysteriously magical than that lumpy spongy lump of coal.

The dragon tear gleamed. In the Very Small World, all the tear’s tiniest little bits stopped holding hands. They waved at each other as some prepared to leave and as most changed places for their new seats. Everyone felt a little sad, even though they knew the next season would be a happy one, for the changing of seasons is almost always bittersweet. Something new was coming and they’d been together for quite some time, so it was perfectly fine to have a teary goodbye.

Now the great and magical moment had arrived. In the warm and rolling lights of the lasers, the atoms smiled with a different kind of delight as they began to combine in a strange — and here we should zoom away, for this is a Christmas adventure, after all, and it’s important to give lovers their privacy.

The machine switched off. The exhausted lasers wheezed. A pair of glasses crunched underfoot. A silence rippled throughout the lab.

And then the cheers erupted.

The dragon tear, in the light of the lasers, and in the spirit of Christmas, had created more energy than the lasers had given. It was a miracle.

‘We did it!’ cried the head researcher. The sobbing scientist stopped sobbing and made whooping noises instead, and all the younger scientists who had copied his cries copied instead his whooping delight. Someone fixed the playlist and it went right to Must Be Santa, Bob Dylan’s version, a very good Christmas party song. A disco ball descended from the ceiling. Champagne bottles popped and confetti exploded from the fire sprinklers.

The bandana man simply adjusted his bandana. Then, in a Christmas miracle rivalling the discovery of nuclear fusion, he even smiled — but nobody saw it, except for the sloth.

The sloth was almost done with his smile tour. He’d missed most of the action, but the smiles were worth it. They always were.

The disillusioned former ice cream selling man felt tears begin to fall from eyes. He knew that this moment was a vanilla bean with gummy bears and sprinkles kind of moment, with a slight splash of caramel. He realized with a lightning bolt in his stomach and down his spine that he’d never stopped believing in the power of ice cream after all.

The puffy pocketed adventurer simply put her hands in her two favorite pockets. The dragon tear gift had been magical. Christmas was saved. Her only regret was that after all the wild things they’d gone through, they hadn’t been able to find Santa. But they’d accomplished his final mission, the task described in the final entry in his notebook as his Ultimate Christmas Miracle — they’d helped invent nuclear fusion.

The four adventurers gathered in a huddle once the chaotic celebration had died down. The hour had come for them to part, but there was still a bit of time for them to spend in near-silent reminiscence. ‘My old ice-cream shop is around the corner,’ the jolly man formerly known as the third most quiet and definitely most cynical member said. ‘Let’s see if my old partner still has the Christmas spirit I lost.’

With all the happiness and contentment of a group marching into the sunset with the full knowledge that their adventure is complete and sequelless, the band marched out through the door of the lab.

They did not see the sobbing scientist with the poofy poofy beard stop his sobbing — wonderfully acted — before removing his labcoat quietly by the lab’s rear door. None of the other scientists saw him either, for they were trying to figure out how confetti had come out of the fire sprinklers. They did not see the color of the velvety suit he wore underneath his labcoat, and they did not hear the cadence of his quiet chuckle, and of course they did not see the sleigh parked outside, covered in camouflage, powered by a Christmas miracle even greater than the gift he’d just given them — his sneakiest, most wonderful, ultimate Christmas surprise.

Until next year, anyway.

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