Natural talent

Submitted into Contest #14 in response to: It's about a photographer, who is a rookie.... view prompt




“John, I really, really need you. You know I wouldn't ask otherwise. It's an emergency!”

I scratched my beard and kept my mouth shut. Lenny was a good friend - or at least an old friend, having latched on me around second grade and never leaving me alone ever since - but he was so full of shit sometimes. Most of times. His mouth was big enough to sequentially get him into trouble and out of them without any pause whatsoever, but I still had a never dying hope to exhaust him with noncommittal silence. We'd known each other for almost twenty years now and it didn't work even once.

“Come on! You're exactly what they need. Someone to look tough and professional. Capable. You're gonna be fine, more than just fine - terrific right away!”

“Lenny, ” said I carefully, trying not to give off any vibe of agreeing or supporting his crazy plan. “You're missing the main undermining fact of the whole enterprise.” I pointed at myself. “I am not a photographer.”

“Pfft, that's not a problem. Just take a camera and click it looking haughty and buzy. You're gonna...”

“No, I'm not gonna be all right!” I snapped, feeling my patience melt like fog after sunrise. “You took a full documentary job requiring a professional team of a script writer, a producer, a photographer, a camera man...”

“Oh, don't worry about that last one. They specifically prohibited us to shoot any video, so...”

"That's not the point!“ I roared. “Your whole documentary team consists of you and your communicator! And you are to make a story about what? A civil war on Mrissant! And the best part: who are your employers? One side of the conflict! An army, Lenny! You are about to spectaculary fail fulfilling a contract you've signed with one of the warring military forces! And all alone, damn it!”

“See? That's why I'm asking you to come as my photographer.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded and suddenly deflated. Lenny had always been like that - easygoing, careless, almost childish in his impulsive decisions. Something came to his mind - like working for army apes on some backwater planet known only for its never-ending hundred years plus civil war - and boom! He went for it. No pre-planning, no hesitation, not a single rational thought as to how to make it work. As always Lenny's only hope was to call me.

He was staring at me with his usual puppy eyes, and I felt my resolution crumble. Lenny did that very thing so many times that I'd lost count, and every single time it worked, dammit. He was a good person, a person without malice which was a rare thing. So what that he was full of stupid ideas and hedonistic irresponsible impulses? Life had been harsh on him. It had been harsh on us both and from childhood we were used to coping with it together. It was just a happenchance that I'd grown up big and managed to join the army, kept a low enough profile to stay alive but still acted brave enough to retire early and be more or less set for life. Lenny wasn't that lucky.

And now, looking at his open and trusting face, I had a feeling that I was allowing him to involve me into something dangerous and fishy, but I had no heart to refuse him. Best friends forever, right?

“All right, I'll go. But you'd better make sure that you won't make us killed, Lenny!”

“Sure thing, Johnny!” He triumphantly grinned and clapped my back. “I've got everything covered, don't you worry.”

Honestly, that was that worried me most.


After my agreement everything happened fast - even too fast for my liking.

It turned out that Lenny had already booked two tickets to the Mrissant's system traffic hub and arranged for a military shuttle to pick us from there. Which made me wonder. Was he that sure that I'd agree? The job I'd got myself saddled with certainly was not on my professional skills list.

In a day I found myself aboard the cheapest regular ship working on Mrissant's quadrant holding a second hand camera and still wondering what possessed me to agree to that farce. I saw no other option - I'd have to pretend to be a photographer. Like Lenny'd said, look haughty and click. Piece of cake.

A hand landed on my shoulder.

“Hey, Johnny, I just wanted to say - thank you. You always get me out of trouble, and I'm grateful. Really. So...”

“Too early to thank me.” I winced. That came out a lot harsher than intended, but now was not the time to mother Lenny. “Nothing accomplished yet. First we need to get to Mrissant in one piece...”

“Oh, that's easy! All we have to do is to sit on ours... ”

“... then to convince the CO that we're the team he's expecting... What's his name again?”

“Colonel Morrigan. Johnny, calm down, would you? And put that camera down, you're gonna break it squeezing like that! It might not look it, but it cost me pretty and...”

Lenny kept on babbling but I didn't listen. I let him take the piece of junk out of my hands without even noticing. My mind was busy making up a strategy of staying alive and getting paid. I would keep us both safe - and when it's over I'd have Lenny's hide for everything. Yep, he's gonna pay all right. Maybe even learn something this time. I looked at him.

“All right, now please shut up. The flight will be long, so why don't we use that time effectively, huh?”

“The army has totally had you, J. Effectively? Seriously? Doing what? Push-ups and crunches?”

Lips curwing in a slight smile, I crossed my arms and closed my eyes. Exercising sounded mighty fine indeed. Always kept useless thoughts at bay, but...

“Sleep, Lenny. Just go to sleep and try not to talk in it too much.”

Never waiting for his reply I fell asleep.


Mrissant's traffic hub might have been world's biggest aesthetic and technologically advanced wonder - or no. Either way we would have never found out for ourselves. The moment we took a step from the regular ship some military goon peeled himself from the wall and hailed us.

“Mr. Strickland?”

Lenny put on his best commercial smile and offered his hand.

“Yes, that's me, young man! And here is my...”

“PV2 Graham, at your service. Follow me, we have no time to dawdle.”

PV2 Graham turned on heels and started toward one of the departure gates. Judging by his speed he was in serious concern that the war was going to be won while he's away and thus he would be bereaved of all his potential recommendations and decorations. Lenny as always looked hopeful and happy, but I was becoming irritated. And fast. Private was an ultimate rookie, but acted like all civilians were below him. How the hell did someone barely out of the boot camp acquire such attitude?

We reached the shuttle in less than 7 minutes and were instantly cleared for take off. Private Graham didn't even wait for us to buckle properly before kicking thrusters to the max. The bastard!

As soon as we were flying the radio came to life and sternly spat out:

“PV2 Graham! Come in!”

The young man sat straight as a rod and gave a salute with one hand while clenching the controls in the other. The shuttle was old and shabby and had no video comm, so PV2 Graham was enthusiastically saluting his radio set. That made me grin. Lenny noticed and shooed me but I only grinned harder. Finally I was starting to enjoy this disastrous trip.

“Colonel Morrigan, sir! The reporters are on their way, sir!”

Colonel on the other side wasn't impressed, apparently.

“Why aren't they here already?! Hurry up, Graham, or I'll bust your scrawny backside all the way back to the boot camp!”

“Right,” I thought, “and what a mighty long way that would be!”

“Sir, yes, sir! Copy that! PV2 Graham, out!”

At last he lowered his hand and shot us an ugly look. Whether he would receive his punishment or not, Lenny and me were certainly up to some trouble.


In an hour, spent in uncomfortable silence, we finally reached Mrissant proper and were unceremoniously dropped on some landing field in the middle of nowhere. There was only grass, mud and a tiny shack at the edge of the field. As it turned out inside was the mentioned Colonel Morrigan, and while Lenny was combing his hair with fingers and I was pacing brilliantly avoiding mud and poodles, he came out - more like jumped out - and stood before us. He said something, but I totally missed it.

I stared down at the boss-to-be.

CO looked to be exactly the moron he sounded: short, snotty and stuck-up like hell. His eyes were small and shifty, never focusing on something for more than a second. The opulent uniform was probably meant to intimidate and give luster to the wearer, but on his scraggy frame it made an impression of a tasteless grown-up coat of some aging burlesque diva hung carelessly on a way too short child-sized coat rack. All in all he reminded me of a human-sized dressed up rat.

“What took you so long, I've asked! You!” he screeched and perked his finger right in Lenny's face. “Who do you think you are?!”

“Colonel Morrigan, I...”

“You think you're me now?!”

“No, Colonel, I certainly...”

“Silence! We've waisted enough time waiting for your sorry excuse of a team.” He started briskly walking away from the landing field to somewhere in the general direction of distant shouts, dust and vague silhouettes of some one or two store buildings. He didn't give us any sign to follow, but glancing at each other we made faces and raced after him.


The barracks were empty when we got there. Colonel Morrigan walked through them without slowing. Naturally, we followed. On the other side there was a truck filled with soldiers. All of them looked impatient, almost trembling with desire to depart. With shock I realized they were dying to go to the front line. To possibly die - quite literally.

Colonel climbed to the front seat and waived for us to sit in the bed with the rest of non-officers. Using my bulk and an evil eye I managed to wrangle us seats right next to the driver's cabin, and Lenny jumped at the possibility at once.

“Colonel, would you mind me asking some questions while we're on the go? I may as well start writing a draft of the story...”

Morrigan turned and pierced him with a slightly rabid stare. I frowned.

“Questions? I've hired you not for writing stories, Mr. Strickland. We are at war. There,” he pointed his finger straight ahead, “in five miles is the front line. The blazing border between the civilization and the barbarity, generously watered by our comrades' blood. Write that down,” he ordered in a hushed voice and continued like nothing ever happened. “And I am an esteemed commander of the assault force which was supposed to, well, assault the enemy there - yesterday.”

Colonel made an impressive pause which I had a vague feeling was supposed to shame us in some way but failed. He kept staring at Lenny. Lenny was torn between his scribbles on the communicator and a purely polite impulse to look his interlocutor in the eyes. I had nothing to do, so decided to do my damn fake job - and with a quiet click took a photo of Morrigan. Rodent eyes and a viciously malicious expression - bet he'd love that picture! His essence in its purest.

Colonel snapped his eyes to me and suddenly I felt slightly uncomfortable.

"You! What the hell are you doing?“

”Took a photo, sir. I'm a photographer, see?“ I waived my camera at him. Seriously, I was starting to suspect he was not just a moron but an imbecile at the very best.

”I see the damn camera! Who told you to take a photo?“

”Well, noone. I'm capable of deciding the right timing myself. Sir,“ answered I acidly.

”No, from now on you're not. You'll take a photo only when I order you to. Understood?“

The hell I would! I was opening my mouth to tell him to shove his orders, but Lenny interrupted me. With begging eyes he pinched my arm and hastily said:

”Of course, Colonel, no problem.“

”Good. Here are your text, it's been written for you. You are not allowed to change or enlarge upon it. Just publish it as it is.“ In total disbelief I watched how Colonel Morrigan handed Lenny a page of printed text. Lenny took it, scanned the content and his eyes rounded.

”But... Colonel, certainly you are joking... It is...“

”No joking, Mr. Strickland.“ The truck came to a screeching stop. ”Look, we've finally arrived. Get out and don't forget that camera. I'll tell you what to shoot, ha-ha!“


The front line was eerely silent. No shouts, no explosions, no rat-tat sounds of firearms. Only wind was tearing at the standard above our position, loudly flapping it - and that was it.

The enemy line was clearly visible in half a mile away, but they just stood there, waiting for something - an order or a sign, but to me it looked oh so much like a set up. Our soldiers quickly filed out of the truck and raced to their own comrades already on the position. I stayed behind at the truck's side and grabbed Lenny's arm.

“El, something's off. It doesn't look like a normal operation to me. See those guys? What the hell are they waiting for? An invitation?!”

“I got you, it's very strange. Colonel said they were supposed to attack yesterday, but delayed because of us...”

“Delayed a military operation because their reporters were running late? Fine, I can imagine that given what lackwit Morrigan is. But the enemy? Why aren't they attacking while we are disorganized?”

Lenny looked confused and lost. I frowned and held out a hand.

“What's on that paper he gave you? Let me see.”

“Here. I understood at once. It looks exactly like...”

“Propaganda.” I was seeing red at that point. Documentary, my ass. We got ourselves hired for a stinking piece of cheap propaganda which had nothing in common with real journalistics. Lenny was a fool, but he was an honest kind of fool - ready to do his job to the best of his abilities, and now even that was taken from him! I crumpled the paper, threw it on the ground and balling my fists started to the front line.

“Hey, what do you have in mind?! J? Hey!” Lenny was struggling to keep up with me, but I had no words for him. All my words were for Colonel Morrigan.

I found him easily. He was standing behind the lines of his soldiers, tapping his foot. Seeing me and then Lenny he took out his radio and barked:

“There you are! Finally! Can we start now? Pictures should be taken from here, then from there and maybe a couple of close-ups to demonstrate blood...”

“It's all fake, isn't it?!” I roared. “This assault, your soldiers - damn, even enemy soldiers! The whole fight is staged!”

“This one - yes, it's planned,” calmly answered Colonel Morrigan. He didn't look any more anxious than before. “Both teams fully understand the price they have to pay and are ready to die for their country.”

“Their country?!” yelled Lenny. He was flushed like coming down with a fever and his eyes were wide with horror as realization struck. “How the hell are they going to serve their country fighting with each other to death?!”

“They will fulfill their duty so we can take excellent pictures how our brave soldiers massacre the enemy cowards and make them flee. Do you have any idea how powerful would that be to the morale of the rest? It will boost it to heavens! And these patriots understand that. Look how willing they are!”

“More like brainwashed!” snarled Lenny.

“I've hired you, Mr. Strickland, not to discuss my methods. The contract is clear...”

“The contract didn't say I would have to juggle the facts while fellow countrymen...”

They kept yelling at each other, but I've heard and seen enough. I strode to Colonel and without preamble decked him. That punch wouldn't have made my old sergeant proud as Morrigan was barely reaching to my chest but I felt a sharp and heady satisfaction. The bastard dropped as if shot.

Silence fell. Everybody stared at Colonel's senseless body with open mouths. I coughed, put my hands behind, spread my legs shoulder-wide and barked:

"Ready, front! Your commanding officer is unable to lead you due to health problems. I'm temporarily assuming the command. Who is highest ranking officer here?“

Men froze in shock and then, after 10 seconds or so, hastily got into line. One stepped out and saluted.

”Sergeant Harrison, sir! What would be your name and rank, sir!“

”Major Hardy, soldier. I'm not part of your military system, but this an emergency, so I'll have to do. Any objections?“ I growled casting a menacing look around.

”Sir, no, sir!“ roared men as one.

”Good! Sergeant, call those impersonating enemies off and make them join us. And then we'll roll!“

Well, it seemed my short career as freelance photographer was over. What a pity, huh. But at least I'd be doing what I'm best at instead. Maybe I should consider returning to the army after that?

I grinned. We'll see. We'll see indeed.

November 07, 2019 07:49

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