• Published 23rd Sep 2021
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The Only Mark That Matters - CocktailOlive



The story of Radish Root, a pony with obscene cutie marks.

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81. The Project

“Well? What do you think?” Radish proudly asked Light. “Pretty cool, right?”

He waved a hoof at the grounds before them. At his suggestion, the defunct summer camp next to Ponyville Lake had been purchased by the palace and converted into a research station for studying the Everfree Forest. During Radish’s suspension, the royal craftsponies had worked with amazing efficiency in restoring, renovating, and remodeling the facility for the researchers and guards who would now be stationed there. Buildings once used for arts and crafts were now laboratories, bunkhouses were now barracks, play fields were now training courses, and the cafeteria was now a much nicer cafeteria.

The palace’s research department had appointed a Science Director, who was in charge of assembling the research team. Celestia provided a support staff for administration and maintenance. Radish, who had been given the title of Station Chief, had chosen the guards.

“This whole place was seriously your idea?” Light asked.

“Yep.”

“It should be named after you, then.”

“What am I, a Wagoner?"

“Halt! Who goes there!?” bellowed a feminine voice.

Radish and Light looked up. From atop a small wooden lookout tower, a griffon with rusty red fur and mottled gold plumage glowered down at them. She leapt off her perch and landed in front of them, brandishing a spear.

“Identify yourselves! Friend or foe!?”

Radish held up his Guard ID badge. “Major Root, here to assume command of this facility.”

She held her spear at her side and saluted. “Yes, sir! We’ve been eagerly awaiting your arrival!”

“Uh… good. Here I am. And you must be Wing Trooper Grenatta.”

“Yes, sir! On temporary assignment from Watchtower Fifteen, sir!”

At ease, trooper. Just calm yourself and talk to me.”

“Yes… sir.”

“I was impressed by your record. But why did you want to transfer here?”

“I… wanted to be where the action is, sir.”

“What, Ponyville? Watchtower Fifteen borders the dragon lands, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. But most of the major current events of the past few years happened in this locality, sir.”

“I can’t argue with that.”

“In some ways, the Everfree Forest is more dangerous than the dragon lands! Nocreature knows everything that’s lurking in there. I wanted to measure myself against the challenge, sir.”

“I like your attitude, trooper.”

“I was also hoping to, ah, measure myself against… you, sir.”

“How’s that?”

She lowered her voice. “Everyone in the Forces heard about how you defeated Princess Celestia in single combat. It inspired us to start an inter-tower wrestling league.”

Radish sighed. “It was a regulation sparring match, and I won on a technicality.”

“Because you psychologically manipulated her into disqualifying herself! Right, sir?”

“Uh… something like that.”

“Do you still wrestle, sir? I was the regional champion! I’d relish the opportunity to grapple with you.”

Light raised an eyebrow.

“We’re going to be doing plenty of training here, wing trooper,” said Radish. “You’ll get all the challenge you can handle.”

“I look forward to it, sir!”

“Dismissed.”

Grenatta flapped back up to her lookout tower. Radish and Light continued along the path to the station.

“She sure seemed eager to impress you,” noted Light.

“I was like that when I started out in the Rangers. And again when I started out in the Guard. Doing everything you can to impress the new bosses.”

“She was rather cute for a griffon.”

“Guards aren’t cute, Fan. Guards are fearsome sentries of order. Ah, here’s my quarters.”

They stopped in front of a dogtrot cabin with Radish’s name engraved on a hanging sign. They explored the rooms- Radish’s quarters were appointed with an office, a modern kitchen, and a private bath. They entered the last of the doors to find a bedroom with new furniture and fresh linens. Curtsey Blush, the maid, was dusting the bookcases.

“Oh! Hello, Major Root!” she said with a bow. “Or should I say Station Chief Root? And you must be Light Fantastic! Pleased to meet you!”

“Uh, right. Pleased to meet you,” Light said warily.

“Miss Blush? You’re on staff here?” asked Radish.

“I sure am!” she said, skipping up to him. “After all those years working in the cold, dark Wagoner mansion, who wouldn’t leap at the chance to work at a summer camp?”

“Ah, that does make sense.”

“Plus, I get to wear the warm-weather maid uniform! It’s so airy!”

She turned and posed to show off her uniform, a gingham seersucker number with a silk bonnet. Light frowned.

“Well, if there’s anything you need, let me know,” said Radish.

“Of course! And you just let me know what kind of service you'd like.”

Light grit her teeth.

“What do you mean?” asked Radish.

“Well, for example, would you like me to turn down your bed?”

“Yes, he would,” Light said pointedly. “Turn down his bed every time, please.”

“Will do!” she said cheerfully.

Radish dropped off his luggage in the bedroom and led Light out the cabin. They continued to the center of the camp.

She seemed really eager to please you, too,” Light muttered.

“She worked for Worthy Wagoner. She thinks she owes me for bringing him down. But really, we all owe her for making the bust possible.”

“Uh huh. Does a research outpost really need a maid?”

“I used to be uncomfortable about all the palace servants doing stuff for me, too. But some ponies get cutie marks for service because that’s what they really love to do. They should get to pursue their special talents, just like you pursued art.”

“Hmm. Okay.”

They walked past a large obstacle course. Radish stopped. A slender, cream-colored earth mare with a brown mane was swinging across a set of hanging rings. She leapt off the last one, dove through a suspended barrel hoop, flicked out her spear, and threw it at a target. It hit the bullseye just as she landed. She tossed back her sweaty mane and wiped her brow. Radish smiled.

“Who’s that?” asked Light.

“That’s Maple Bar. We both started in the Guard around the same time. She comes from a long line of foresters, so she was a natural pick for this place.”

“You’ve mentioned her. I didn’t picture her being so… fit.”

“Oh, she’s an excellent fighter. She’s the only one who can pull off those diving spear throws consistently. I’ve asked her for some pointers, but she says my muscles are too bulky for it.”

“Oh, she does, does she?”

“It’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept. Look- there’s the admin building.”

The administration building was a converted two-story lake house. They entered the foyer-turned-lobby. Pinkie Pie was pacing in front of the reception desk.

“Oh! Hiya, Raddy! Hiya, Fanny!”

“Hello, Pinkie Pie,” said Radish. “Did you need something?”

“My sister Marble is interviewing for a job here! I’m here for moral support.”

“Ah, I saw a ‘Marble Pie’ on the list of science team candidates, but I wasn’t sure if you were related,” recalled Radish.

A gray earth mare wearing a bright yellow tie walked out from one of the side halls, staring at the floor. Pinkie Pie leapt at her.

“Marbs! How’d it go!?”

Marble gave a weak smile and held up a scroll. Pinkie Pie tossed her sister in the air, caught her, then squeezed her tight.

“You got the job! I told you there was nothing to worry about!”

“Congratulations, Miss Pie,” said Radish, reaching out a hoof. “Welcome to the team.”

Marble Pie gazed at his hoof timidly, slowly reached out and shook it, then quickly disengaged.

“She’s not much of a chatterbox,” Pinkie explained while nuzzling her sister, “but she’s the best dang soil scientist you could ask for! She knows everything about every kind of earth, from alfisol to zombie graves!”

“That’s great,” said Radish. “The only thing more mysterious than what’s in the Everfree Forest is what’s under it.”

Marble looked off to the side, smiled, and nodded. Pinkie hoisted her onto her back. “I’m going to help her get settled in. We’ll see you at the party later!”

“What party?” Radish asked.

“I’m throwing a meet and greet by the lake! That way the townsponies can get to know all the new folks here.”

“Who authorized that?”

“I’ve learned that it’s always better to ask for forgiveness than permission when it comes to parties.”

“Well, it’s probably a good idea. You have my forgiveness. We’ll need to discuss your party-planning fee, though.”

“Oh, Radish. The first one’s always free, silly.”

She carried her sister out the door. Light turned to Radish.

“I’m not going to attend that. Her parties have kiddy music and no booze.”

“Well, I have to go. It’d be bad for morale if the Station Chief avoided social functions.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“Huh?”

“Pinkie Pie's sister sure is shapely for a soil scientist.”

“Fan, why do you keep commenting on my coworkers’ looks?”

Light looked at the floor. She took a deep breath. “I, uh, debuted the new line of merchandise at my shop. You know, the one based on your fight with Celestia. Everything with Nightmare Root -the character based on you- was really popular.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

“It’s just that… the customers were mostly mares. They knew your story, and they were positively cooing over you. Stuff like, ‘ooh, he can pin me any day’. None of them even knew you were with me.”

“Light, I only agreed to that bout to win something nice for you. Everypony who’s heard the story should know that part.”

“Legends take on a life of their own, Rad. Little details like a girlfriend end up getting left out.”

Radish hugged Light. “You’re not a little detail, Fan, no matter what your customers say. And I’m not going to be tempted away from you by them, much less a coworker.”

She hugged back. “Thanks, Rad.”

“Maybe you should quit with the Nightmare Root merchandise.”

“Nah. The profits are too good.”

“Okay then, give him a girlfriend based on you.”

"No one would buy that."

"I'd buy it."

Light chuckled. “Thanks, but you're not my target demographic. But now that you mention it, romantic drama sells really well. Maybe Nightmare Root could have multiple love interests, all fighting over him! Good girls… bad girls… exotic girls… ooh, and a maid!”

“Seriously?"

“This could be a big hit. Customers taking sides. I need to get sketching while the iron’s hot."

“Fine, I’ll cover for you at the party.”

She kissed him. “Looks like we’ve both got a busy week ahead of us. See you this weekend, Station Chief.”

She left out the door. Radish walked the halls of the administration building, meeting the staff members. He found the Science Director’s office door open. The director, an older pink earth mare, was sitting at her desk and speaking with a younger light brown earth stallion.

“Hello, major. I’m Rosy Day. This is my assistant, Timber Spruce.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Radish, shaking their hooves. “I look forward to working together.”

“As do I,” said Rosy Day. “I’ve always wanted to study an unnatural wilderness area, but without sufficient protection, it’s never been feasible.”

“I should have my guards ready for expeditions in a couple of days.”

“By the way, does this station have an official name yet?” asked Timber Spruce.

“Not yet. I wanted to get a sense of the place before I landed on a name. Did you have any thoughts?”

“How about ‘Camp Everfree’?” he suggested.

“No, that would abbreviate to ‘CE’, which is what everyone calls the Crystal Empire now.”

“Oh. Does that matter?”

“Royal Guard standards are to keep communications as unambiguous as possible.”

“So are mine,” said Rosy Day. “I think we’re going to get along just fine.”

Radish took his leave. As he made his way back to the lobby, he heard hoofbeats behind him. Timber Spruce had followed him down the hall.

“Oh, uh, Major? Are you coming to the meet and greet?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know if Twilight Sparkle is coming?”

“I assume so. Why?”

“I’m a big fan. She’s accomplished so many amazing feats- defeating villains, saving the world, ascending to an alicorn! She might be the most impressive pony on the planet.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“I went to her coronation, you know. She looked so majestic up there on the balcony. And the way she handled those protestors- such wisdom! She’s truly our aeon’s beau ideal of a self-actualized mare!”

“What?”

“Thank you so much for this opportunity, major. I’m really looking forward to getting to know her.”

Radish felt tension in his jaw. “You know, Princess Twilight Sparkle is a very important, very busy pony. I wouldn’t get my hopes up on seeing much of her.”

“Oh. Well, do you have any advice on making a good first impression with her?”

“I know she likes guitarists. Are you a guitarist?”

“No…”

“Oh, that’s a shame.”

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