Flash Fiction Challenges: The Subgenre Blender

A little background:

Each Friday, the estimable Chuck Wendig posts a new Flash Fiction Challenge over on his blog, Terrible Minds. Because I haven’t done a lot of writing since I finished The Truth About Melbourne, I’m going to use Mr. Wendig’s prompts to help push myself back into it.

This week’s challenge is to pick one subgenre from each of the two tables Wendig provides (preferably randomly, using either a die or a random number generator) and then mash those two genres up into a single story of two thousand words or so. And what I got was this:

Conspiracy Thriller. Alternate History.

Keating took a moment to catch his breath. The next step would be the hardest. Yarralumla was never an easy security nut to crack, and it was that much harder for an independent. If he’d been working inside the intelligence apparatus, it might have been easier, but then, if he’d been inside, he’d just as likely been co-opted by the Yanks like everyone else.

If Kerr was staying true to form – and he’d spent most of his time as GG being fairly predictable in his movements – he’d be gone for several hours. There were other watchers keeping tabs on him, so at least Keating didn’t have to worry about that. But signalling him that Kerr was returning early would be tricky – it had to be done passively, which meant that Keating had to check a light that wouldn’t always be visible was still lit. Still, he was reasonably comfortable with his chances.

Gough had provided him with the keys to Government House – Keating knew better than to ask the Prime Minister how he had illegally obtained them – and Keating had spent the last few weeks teaching himself how to install the bugs. Each one took at most a few minutes, and the plan was for him to check the signalling light after each one. The mission could hardly fail to be at least a partial success so long as the young politician could hold up his end. And Keating didn’t want to disappoint Gough Whitlam – enough members of the government had already done that.

One of the questions he had felt entitled to ask the PM was why him? Why someone who needed to learn the skills of house-breaking and bug installation, rather than a trained professional. Gough had smiled in that knowing way of his, and explained that it was the source of the training that was the problem. Most of the operatives the government would ordinarily turn to for such a thing had been trained by the CIA – and when the operation you’re proposing was to determine whether or not someone was putting the interests of the CIA ahead of those of the nation, the last thing you wanted was anyone who might feel obligated to tip off the Company. For this, Gough went on, I need someone I can trust, Paul. Is that you, comrade?

Naturally, Keating had acquiesced, aware that he was being asked to put his career and possibly even his life on the line, but so furious at Kerr’s betrayal that it seemed a worthy trade. He had already written the letters to the PM, and they sat on the PM’s desk, their contents distinguished by how they were addressed – one for each possible circumstance they could envision. (The question of rewards was never mentioned, but Keating understood well enough that this was a fast track to a ministry at least, and more likely a Cabinet ministry.)

In the event, it all went according to plan. Kerr did head for home a little earlier than anticipated, but a quick-thinking watcher had faked a fall in front of the Governor-General’s car, delaying him long enough that Keating was able to install all the bugs and make good his exit from the building. Now, it was just a waiting game.

It wasn’t a long wait.

The following week, Gough visited Kerr in an informal capacity, a nominally social pre-Christmas drinks to which some of the more favoured ambassadors – chiefly those from the Commonwealth, but also the Americans – were also invited. Gough made dutiful small talk with everyone, but also made a point of asking Kerr for a few private moments. Here, he dangled some bait in front of the man, telling him of his serious misgivings about President Ford’s recent actions. Nothing too specific, and all strictly in confidence, of course, and he was quick to correct himself and support the pardon for the Vietnam War draft-dodgers, but enough – he hoped – to set Kerr’s tongue to wagging. Gough excused himself early, blaming an early start the next day, and left with the mission accomplished.

Back at ALP headquarters, Keating waited anxiously. He and the deputy Prime Minister, Jim Cairns, had spent the evening listening to the bugs, hoping for something to pounce on. A half hour after Whitlam joined them, they heard what they were looking for. Kerr and the American Ambassador were deep in conversation, long after the other guests had left, and they were confirming Whitlam’s worst suspicions.

Of course, knowing the thing and being able to act on it were two different matters. The three men agreed that it was too close to Christmas to act now – Parliament was out of session, and people’s minds were not much on politics. The new year would be soon enough to act. And besides, who knew how much more ammunition Kerr might give them in the meantime.

It was hard to keep the secret, Keating found. He wanted to shout it from the rooftops, to make it the sole item on the agenda of every political speech and event he attended. People noticed the he was preoccupied, but he told them that his pursuit of Annita was at a delicate stage, as he was trying to decide how and when to propose to her. Most people accepted that, and it was true as far as it went – although he had to come clean to Annita after she told him that his secretive behaviour was leading her to suspect infidelity.

Christmas brought a further round of delays. Cyclone Tracy wiped out Darwin and killed 65 people, and the nation’s attention was there (although Gough and Jim’s sure handling of the disaster rebounded well for them in the polls at least). Finally, Gough told the other two men that they’d hang back until after Australia Day, so as not to tarnish the event. Keating was glumly aware that this actually meant February at the earliest, even if it also meant more time for Kerr to dig his own grave. For dig the man did. It seemed barely a day went by without him betraying Australian secrets to the CIA or MI6.

Now conversation turned to how best to release the information. Cairns wanted to simply go to the media with it, but conceded that doing so would only lead to questions about how the information was obtained. Gough wanted to give Kerr enough rope to hang himself, but wasn’t quite sure how the noose would be tightened. Keating mostly played Devil’s advocate, pointing out the problems they’d need to solve. The question of provenance was the biggest one.

Finally, Whitlam decided how it would all be handled. He’d go to Kerr with security concerns about the Portugese bugging them – with Portugal making noises about getting out of Timor, it was believable enough – and explain how he wanted to tighten security at all government buildings, including Government House. They could send in a mixed team from ASIO, the Federal Police and ASIS, scan for bugs and allow the ones Paul had planted to be found. It would all be kept quiet from the media, Gough would tell Kerr, counting on it getting leaked.

Keating saw the flaw at once. If Kerr had any time to react, he’d get his CIA handlers to scrub the place first, and the bugs would simply disappear. So he suggested a modification of the plan: Gough would tell Kerr about it, and insist on the urgency of the matter, with a team standing by to swoop in as soon as the Governor-General was informed. Presenting it to Kerr as a fait accompli would give him less time to hide and make it harder to refuse.

The security sweep duly found the bugs (although, Keating was amused to notice, not all of them), and reported on the evidence to Gough. Gough called Britain to report the problem, and request authority to dismiss Kerr from his role – approval which was duly granted. He called Gerald Ford, and discussed the matter with him, agreeing on how best to frame the matter – Ford would be allowed to blame the matter on rogue elements in the CIA, holdovers from Nixon, and try to contain the damage as best he could.

Keating never left the room throughout this time, although Whitlam made him wait outside when he summoned the Governor-General and the Leader of the Opposition to his office. Give him his due, Keating thought, Billy Snedden was nearly as outraged as Gough about the whole thing – and even less inclined to let Kerr off the hook gracefully. (Privately, Keating suspected that Snedden’s outrage had more to do with Kerr getting caught than anything else.) But Gough insisted that Kerr be given a chance to step down with what dignity he could muster, while making no bones at all to Kerr that it was the dignity of the office that he cared about, and that Kerr should consider himself persona non grata henceforth.

There would be some negotiations about how to proceed, but Whitlam had yet more in mind. He dispatched Keating to talk to a young firebrand in Snedden’s party named Fraser, whose leadership ambitions were fairly obvious. Keating pretended to be outraged about the deal between Snedden, Whitlam, and Kerr, telling Fraser that while he couldn’t leak it without it being immediately obvious where it had come from, Fraser could – and steal the leadership from Snedden into the bargain.

The next morning, the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s front page read “Move Aside, Deep Throat” and contained all the sordid details. Gough and Snedden both denied that any such deal had been made, and the CIA issued a statement denying everything. By the day’s end, Ford had countermanded them, promising an internal investigation of the Agency by the FBI after which heads would roll, that he would visit Australia himself to make things right with Gough, and that the USA did not make a habit of spying on its allies.

Kerr stepped down in disgrace, refered to by Gough in Parliament as “Kerr the cur”, and emigrated to London a month later. Keating got his ministry, the youngest Federal minister in Australian political history. Cairns and Whitlam weathered a stormy year – helped by the tendency of the public to assume that any new scandal was just the CIA’s revenge – and limped across the line for a third term in government in the 1976 election with a reduced majority.

And Fraser, realising how he had been used, plotted his revenge on Snedden, Whitlam and Keating.

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