The Alchemy of Chemistry

by Novel-Idea

Observation Phase

What happened, Miss Shimmer?” Professor Polish demanded.
Sunset just stared, unable to find the right words. Unable to find any words.
Alchemical Storage B was one of five rooms where all alchemy supplies and stations were stored when not in use by the students. Rather than forcing students to come in and out of a lab, the architects of the school had developed a simple and safe teleport spell that simply replaced the contents of a classroom with the contents of this room. Sunset had once studied the teleportation spell… and had to admit whoever had designed it knew their stuff. Even she couldn’t create a system like this.
Not yet, anyway.
Usually, the rooms were locked and secured, since each room also contained storage cabinets and shelves for thousands of reagents, used for alchemy, artificing and enchantment from first-year classes all the way to post-graduate studies. They were maintained only by the professors themselves. Even aides and assistants didn’t have access to the rooms.
Despite all of that, the place was a wreck. Flasks were shattered. Reagents were strewn all over the place. Burners had been bent in half. A few of the tables had been broken into nothing but shards of wood. Cabinet doors were ripped off from their hinges. Every cupboard had been emptied and smashed. The place looked like it had been subjected to a raging tornado. Beneath her hooves were the shattered remnants of gem dust, bits of glass and a few overripe blueberries.
“I… I have no idea, Professor!” Sunset finally gasped as a bottle of half-diced glowspore mushrooms fell over and cracked. “I’ve never been in here!”
Polish looked absolutely furious. Considering her face was usually as impassive as Canterlot Mountain, it sent shivers of ice up and down Sunset’s spine.
“Really, now?” Polish grunted. “Fascinating. Did you know that these rooms are kept under careful supervision, and that we have arcane security wards installed on every door?”
“Uh, I think so?” Sunset had a bad feeling where this was going.
“Another point of interest: we recently upgraded them to capture the identity of anypony who enters the room. Usually we use it just to make sure a professor returns borrowed material. Occasionally though… it’s used for something more.”
Polish turned to the closed door and ignited her magic. A sigil Sunset didn’t recognize materialized before them.
And then a ghostly Sunset Shimmer stepped into the room.
Sunset gaped.
“That’s impossible.”
“According to the information left in the wards, you entered this room shortly after dawn. Tell me, Miss Shimmer, where were you after dawn?”
“I was in the cafeteria making probably the worst cup of coffee I've ever had!”
“And tell me, Miss Shimmer, where is the cafeteria?”
“It's on the...” Sunset stopped and realized what Polish was getting at.
“One floor below us.”
“Professor, I swear to you, I didn’t do this!”
“I checked the ward, Miss Shimmer. These devices cannot be deceived by anything so mundane as base illusion magic. You entered this room.”
“But I didn’t!”
“Are you denying what you see before your eyes, Miss Shimmer?”
Sunset shook her head so fast she felt like it would fly off. “No, Professor! But… I don’t know how this could have happened! I swear it wasn’t me.”
“Yet you come to the school during a time when nopony else is here. Nopony to verify your alibi.”
“Professor, you have to believe me!”
“This is what I was afraid of, Miss Shimmer. Recall our discussion of Ozymanedias? Recall where those experience cores were being stored… and where they are no longer present? You already knew about the experience cores here before I even mentioned them this morning, didn't you?" She sighed. "Don't bother answering that. While this is a bit more direct than your usual methods, it is in keeping with your past motives.”
Sunset stared at her ghostly image.
Has… could I have done this? Could all of the mental stress in the last few days made me finally crack? Maybe I did this during my sleep? Or… could I have actually gotten my hooves on a core, hid them and then... made myself forget? It’s… possible? At least, if I really wanted to be thorough…
“It is my own fault. I should have known better. Though I doubt you are, you should be grateful that today’s exam will proceed as planned. The ingredients needed to complete the glowcoat potion are simple. At least I know you didn’t do something to the stock. The last part of any alchemy final is for the pony to test the potion themselves. You know this. If you had done something to disrupt that, or to cause injury to my students, Princess Celestia herself could not protect you from me.”
Sunset swallowed. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You will clean up this mess after the test. Thankfully, Storage D is clean. I will prepare the stations there with the necessary reagents. You are to return immediately to the classroom. Dean Slate has already been informed of this. He has gone to collect Professor Clear and the two of them will be there before you arrive. All of us will investigate your potion stock and the exam itself again. Am I understood?”
Sunset nodded, still unable to find any words.
“Instead of you, I will administer the test. Forgive me if I don’t trust you at the moment. You will simply provide each student with the proper amount of alchemical stock.”
Professor Polish stepped over a broken flask, and got so close Sunset could smell the light jasmine perfume she wore.
“However, mark my words, Miss Shimmer: if something else goes wrong today, you will no longer be welcome in my class. Indeed, I would be rather surprised if you were welcome in this school at all. Please. For your sake, I ask you to change the path you are on.”
“I… But… I didn’t do it?” Sunset whispered.
Professor Polish looked at the damning image of Sunset walking through the door.
“She begs to differ. Now get out of here and report to my classroom. We will deal with the aftermath later.”
With that, the professor teleported out.
Since only a professor could teleport in or out of a closed storage room, Sunset was forced to walk through the arcane apparition of herself. It was a disturbing feeling, making every hair on her body try and crawl away from her, but she endured, mostly because she was trying to figure out what had just happened.
Unless one of the mythical changelings had decided to make a reappearance, sneak into Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns and impersonate her for the sole purpose of destroying the supplies for an alchemy exam… there was nothing else that came to mind. Yeah, sure, transfiguration was a possibility, but nopony could do self-transfiguration. She couldn’t think of anypony in the school with the level of power to maintain a spell like this. For pony’s sake, she didn’t even know of any professors who could pull off something like this.
So that left her with only one possible option.
I did this. Somehow. I did this. I… I just… I just can’t remember?
For once, the two voices in her head didn’t have anything to say. That disturbed her even more.
She trotted through the hallways, ignoring everypony around her. The worried laughs and nervous giggles of students considering their finals filled the corridors, but it was background noise compared to the war going on inside her head.
I just witnessed the impossible.
Her brain still spinning, Sunset finally stumbled into the classroom. The class was almost entirely full. The nervous chatter died instantly the moment she stepped inside and she could feel every eye on her. Sunset wanted to find the closest hole and hide forever.
What happened to the Sunset Shimmer who could handle anything?
That was before I started losing my mind.
Come on, we didn’t actually do that… right?
Not helping.
She stared at her hooves the entire way down to the bottom floor, only to be met by the imposing figure of Dean Silver Slate. Beside him was another pony Sunset vaguely recognized as the dean’s secretary.
“You are not to approach the cauldron until you are given permission by Professor Polish,” Slate informed her. “I saw what you did in the storage room. You just couldn’t resist, could you, Miss Shimmer? Your greed finally got the better of you.”
Her mouth opened to respond but again, nothing came out. One glance at Professor Clear told Sunset exactly what the other professor thought of her right now. Sunset simply shrugged and trotted over to her tiny little desk. For once, she was glad she was in front of one of the few curtained windows.
Some dark part of herself forced her to look up into the classroom. The chatter had started up once more, but most of the students shot dirty looks her way. To Sunset’s surprise, Cinnamon Tart had moved seats and was now sitting next to Moon Dancer where Twilight Sparkle usually sat. In fact, on second inspection, Sunset didn’t see the lavender filly anywhere. The only new face was an adult white pegasus with a pink mane in the back Sunset didn’t remember seeing before. Her face was impassive, but her eyes were intense.
Dean Slate followed her gaze, and sneered. “Miss Shimmer, meet Miss Skies. Your antics have reached the ears of the Department of Education. She’s observing as well. I’d dearly love to see you attempt something under her muzzle. Please don’t let me down.”
She was too tired to be curious. Instead, she just grabbed her now-lukewarm coffee and tossed back the rest of it with one huge gulp. The cup landed back on the table in an empty place that wasn’t there before. A place where the exams should have been. Her head darted up in a panic, but she spotted them on Professor Polish’s desk beside Professor Clear.
Making sure I couldn’t tamper with the tests either, huh? Thorough.
Yellow was silent while Red kept repeating variations of ‘I told you so.’
Sunset alternated between staring at her hooves, staring at the walls and staring at the ceiling. For a moment, she thought she saw something up in the rafters, but when she moved, she realized it was just a lock of her mane.
I really am out of it.
Come on! We need to come up with a plan! Somepony’s trying to frame us for this! That’s the only possible reason!
“Or I’ve gone crazy,” Sunset whispered to herself. “Or maybe it’s another dream. But… I’m too tired for this. Let’s just get the test over with. I’ll deal with the rest afterwards.”
You’re setting us up to fail.
“I don’t fail. I’m Sunset Shimmer. I can handle anything.”
Yeah, right. We’re handling this spectacularly.
Sunset didn’t bother denying the sarcasm. At the moment, she was too tired to care. She’d finally hit her wall. She just didn’t have the emotional energy to be angry anymore. She didn’t have the mental energy to figure out what was going on. Tartarus, she didn’t even have the physical energy to get to her hooves at the moment.
Instead, where anger once had been was the hole Yellow had shown her last night. Only now, it seemed to stretch through every part of her.
I just want to sleep.
Sleep, however, was not in the cards. Professor Polish chose that moment to step through the door. She looked even grimmer than back in the storage room as she marched down the steps. She shot a glance at Sunset and then pulled Dean Slate and Professor Clear into a huddle. Clear floated one of Sunset’s exams over to them and they flipped through it, speaking in quick, hushed tones.
The dean’s secretary—Sunset couldn’t remember her name—just stood there and watched Sunset with hard eyes.
Oh look. Somepony else who hates me. Wonder what I did to her....
She found she didn’t care. It wasn’t a spiteful disinterest though. Like with everything else at the moment, she just didn’t have the energy. The coffee was starting to wear off, and the sugar high was starting to leave her. She’d be lucky if she was still awake by the end of the class.
Finally, the conference broke up and Professor Polish marched over to Sunset.
“Alchemical Storage D is ready, Miss Shimmer. I’ve decided to adjust your test. You will measure the proper amount of stock for each student and hoof it to them as they come up. Dean Slate will supervise. Professor Clear and I will patrol the room and make sure nothing else goes wrong. But before that happens… do you want to tell me why you destroyed that room?”
“I didn’t do it,” Sunset said with a sigh. “I can’t explain what I saw, but I didn’t do it.”
“A pity. A confession right now would have helped. But I will warn you… if anything else happens during this class, there will be dire consequences.”
Sunset nodded. “I understand.”
What else is there to say?
Polish stared at her for a long moment. “One last thing. You will join us as we inspect the stock of the potion and add the final catalyst. Professor Clear will be adding the catalyst, not you.”
Sunset silently followed Professor Polish to the cauldron as Dean Slate lifted the lid and placed it on the floor. Professor Polish, being the most experienced in alchemy, went first. Her horn glowed and a magical aura surrounded the entire cauldron as the professor closed her eyes. Sunset knew she was examining the potion, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It took at least a minute before Polish opened her eyes and let her magic fade. She nodded to Professor Clear.
“I’ve already confirmed the contents as real starbloom,” Clear said in a tense voice and dumped the powered flower into the cauldron.
A flare of magic from Dean Slate mixed in the final catalyst and the potion stock began to slowly rotate.
Again, Professor Polish focused her magic on the cauldron, seeking out any abnormalities.
“Apple, this is foalish,” Slate whispered. “I’m sure we can come up with another exam. Using Miss Shimmer’s material is simply asking for trouble. As much as I would enjoy seeing her get her just deserts in front of our esteemed colleague from the Department, I don’t wish to endanger these students.”
“I must give her one final chance,” Polish said, not meeting Sunset’s eyes. “She’s my aide, Silver. Part of me desperately wants to believe the past year was not an act.”
“You always were too damn trusting for your own good,” Slate growled.
“That is why you two are here.” Polish’s magic faded. “In case I am wrong. Crystal, if you would inspect the potion?”
Dean Slate shot Sunset a glower as Professor Clear’s own magic washed over the cauldron. Her inspection lasted twice as long as Professor Polish’s initial one, but she came away from it with a nod. “It appears benign.”
“I’ll be the final judge of that,” Slate snapped. His magic wrapped around the cauldron and he slammed his eyes closed. Sunset could see the dean concentrating hard as he tried to figure out just what Sunset had done to sabotage the project. The students had gone silent and all of them were staring at the professors around the cauldron.
All but that pegasus. 
There was something familiar about her, but Sunset’s thoughts moved like they were mired in thick jam.
Maybe from—
Sunset started as Slate suddenly let out a grunt of annoyance. She glanced at the clock and blinked.
What? Seven minutes… what’s wrong with the clock?
“Fine. It’s clean. But if anything goes wrong today, Shimmer, it’s over for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had planned for this, having us all here to inspect the potion before you unleashed whatever mayhem you have planned.”
“The only thing I want right now, Slate,” Sunset replied with a yawn. “Is for this to be over so I can go to sleep.”
Slate’s eyes blazed, but he kept his tongue. Instead, he picked up the iron lid and slammed it onto the cauldron. Sunset jumped at the loud noise and even Professor Polish shot Slate a glare.
Slate didn’t notice. “Written Record,” he snapped. “Pass Miss Shimmer the checklist.”
Sunset found a checklist with a quill clamped down by the clip shoved into her face by Slate’s secretary. She grasped it in her magic with a yawn and blinked in surprise when she almost dropped it.
Dammit. I can’t even levitate things properly.
“Thank you for your patience, everypony,” Professor Polish announced. “I apologize for the delay, but I see most of you were wise to use the extra few minutes for some last-second studying. However, the exam will now be administered by myself, Professor Clear and Dean Slate with Miss Shimmer assisting.”
There was a murmur of discontent from the last name. Sunset wasn’t surprised.
“I realize that some of you may be concerned about Miss Shimmer’s participation, but I have personally verified all exam papers and the three of us just verified the stock you’ll be using for today’s alchemy test. Please do not concern yourself. It is completely safe and there should be no surprises.”
Polish coughed and took a deep breath. “The goal of today’s exam is to create a glowcoat potion. When done correctly, this potion will cause anypony who takes but a sip to glow with a soft white light for up to one hour. If done incorrectly, the potion has no effect. If done severely wrong, it will cause smoke to come out of your ears for a few minutes.”
A few of the students giggled and Polish granted them a rare smile.
“You will be graded on the precision of your measurements and the proper combined effects. You are to notate each step of your process and document the results thoroughly. Within the exam, you will find a list of desired effects caused by the combination of different reagents. It will be up to you to determine the most effective way to create the glowcoat potion. This part of the test will take one hour. Afterwards, everypony will be required to take a single sip of their potion.”
This actually got a few cries of protest.
“Do not worry, fillies and colts. We have been very thorough and there is absolutely nothing that can cause you the slightest bit of harm. As I said, the worst that will happen is a bit of smoke will come out of your ears. I guess we shall see who our hotheads are in this classroom, eh?”
Sunset resisted the urge to facehoof. A few of the students didn’t.
“Now, if everypony is ready, please stand and step back from your desks while I bring in the supplies.”
There was a general shuffling of hooves as the students got up and moved things off their desks. Finally, Polish’s horn flared with power. There was a brief explosion of light and the room was filled with alchemy stations.
“All of you are to come down and get your portion of the base mixture from Miss Shimmer. Dean Slate will monitor the amounts and make sure nothing gets mixed up. Once everypony has their potion stock, you may begin.”
Dean Slate pointed for Sunset to take up position to the left of the cauldron, while he took up station on the right. When the first student came down—the cheerful Minuette—the dean lifted the lid off the cauldron. His magic flashed over the potion with a suspicious glance at Sunset before he levitated over a small ladle.
Sunset pulled the quill from the clipboard while pouring the right amount of the base into Minuette’s small beaker. Sunset double-checked the amount with Slate looking over her. Finally, she lifted the quill to check off Minuette’s name from the list.
To her surprise, her magic flickered out and the quill dropped into the cauldron. Slate swore and immediately fished it out. He gave Sunset a long glare before lifting a hoof to stop the students. Once more, magic coated the cauldron and the potion… but Slate merely grunted and passed the quill back to Sunset.
“You’re just asking for it,” he hissed.
Sunset had to focus to keep the ladle steady while she poured the correct amount for the various students. When Cinnamon Tart arrived, Dean Slate stole the ladle and did the measurements himself before shoving it back at Sunset. Tart didn’t even look at her.
Moon Dancer was worse. Her eyes were cold and her expression as hard as the peaks of the Crystal Mountains while she watched Sunset fill her beaker. Without a word, Moon Dancer turned and headed back to her station.
Ten minutes later, everypony was working on their potions. Sunset had retreated to the flimsy protection of her desk while Dean Slate, Professor Polish and Professor Clear prowled around the room.
“Fifteen minutes left,” Professor Polish announced. The abrupt shattering of the silence caused Sunset to almost fall out of her chair. She glanced at the clock yet again, the two voices in her head arguing incoherently as her heart skipped a beat. A half-hour had disappeared.
What just happened?
She shook herself and once again caught the stare of the white pegasus. Sunset frowned at her and turned her attention to Moon Dancer, who looked like she had finished just a few moments ago. The color of the liquid inside her potion bottle was perfect and Sunset had no doubt Moon Dancer had passed.
However, when before Moon Dancer had just ignored her… now she did something worse.
She stared at Sunset with cold eyes for a few minutes before raising her hoof. Professor Polish hurried over and they spoke in low tones for a few moments, after which Moon Dancer pulled out a book. Acts of Defiance: The Loyalists of Equestria. It was probably for her world history exam tomorrow with Professor Dust.
Moon Dancer didn’t look at her again. The flask was nowhere to be seen.
We’re better off alone.
It’s not like I have a choice, Sunset thought. I’ll be alone whether I want to or not.
The thought hurt more than she wanted to admit to anypony, least of all herself.
My parents were right. Other ponies either are there to move you up or be moved aside. And the only thing that matters is being the best. I just need to keep my head down and get through this until I get the answers I deserve from Celestia. After that… all bets are off.
Sunset vowed that, whatever the reason for her slipping time, she wasn’t going to lose another second. She tapped her hoof against the desk in time with the clock, fighting every yawn and every temptation to close her eyes. Whole lifetimes passed before it finally struck the top of the hour.
Well, once we finish this part, they’ll at least know I didn’t screw with the potions… right?
Professor Polish stepped up to the front of the room again. Sunset slowly walked to her side. Dean Slate stood directly behind her with Professor Crystal Clear opposite of Polish. Sunset realized they were surrounding her, making sure she couldn’t run.
I don’t have anything to feel guilty about. I wrote this test to be fair. No matter what anypony believes, this is a fair test.
“I can see many wonderful potions out there. Now comes the practical applications. Again, I remind you that the effects of this potion are completely based in the school of illusion. Only three effects will happen: glowing, nothing or a tiny bit of smoke. Anypony who successfully starts to glows with a faint white light will instantly get full marks.”
Dean Slate leaned over. “Apple, this is a bad idea. We should simply do a basic identification spell on the potions. There is no need for this.”
Polish looked at Sunset. “I will not change the way I run my class due to rumors, Silver… no matter how well those rumors are substantiated.”
Polish returned her attention to the classroom and nodded. “On three, everypony. One. Two. Three.”
All of the students took a sip from their bottles. Some did so confidently. Some did so nervously. Some did it staring at Polish and far too many glanced fearfully at Sunset, but they all actually sipped, comforted by the presence of Professor Clear, Dean Slate and Professor Polish.
Twenty seconds later, the screaming started.