A suburban mall, 2 pm. Mothers and grandmothers sit chatting in the shade. Toddlers squat together in a sandbox, their sun-hats almost touching. The lunchtime business crowd has gone back to their offices. A waiter wipes down the vacant outside tables and pushes chairs back into place. A white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) perches on the rim of a rubbish bin.
Inside the Café Vittoria, a young woman in sunglasses sits with a latte, idly flipping the pages of a magazine. She's been waiting half an hour and is running out of patience. The candle stub she's brought with her is burning low in an ashtray on the table. She wonders if she has another in her handbag.
Into the café sweeps an older woman, smiling and laden with shopping bags. Looking around the café, she spots the candle-lit table and bustles over, dumping her bags on and under the table's empty chairs.
"Whoosh!" she says, sitting down to face the younger woman. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."
"But morphospace is boundless," replies the other, coolly.
Passwords having been exchanged, the women shake hands and murmur "Luz" in unison. Thus begins another clandestine meeting of agents from the League of Unemployed Zoologists, LUZ, whose acronym means "light" in Spanish and whose emblem, the candle, symbolises the vulnerability of zoological knowledge.
"Life in Sydney has been good to you, I see", remarks the younger woman with a hint of sarcasm, nodding towards the shopping bags.
"They're empty boxes in those bags, sweetie", replies the other. "Part of my disguise. What's your UID? I'm Patiriella, Marine Section."
"So I was told. Austrochorema, Freshwater. You're late."
"Not by much. What do you have from Melbourne?"
Austrochorema sips her latte. "A little. Our colleague at Museums Victoria slipped a plea for donations into a squid being loaned to the Smithsonian."
"Really? Which part of the squid?"
The younger woman frowns. "Can we please stick to business?"
A waiter heads their way. "I'll have a long black," calls Patiriella, and the waiter retreats. "Sorry. Anything out of La Trobe?"
"Nothing good,'" replies Austrochorema. "The School of Life Sciences got wound up. Long-contract staff are going into the new Department of Resources, Econometrics and Accountancy Development.'
"A fitting acronym," observes Patiriella. "I don't suppose they'll be offering anything on invertebrates."
"Hardly. Listen!" Austrochorema leans forward, suddenly animated, speaking in a fast whisper. "There's a plan out of Edith Cowan. Do you remember the Bogong Incident, when millions of moths invaded Parliament House in Canberra?"
The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the coffee.
"Of course," replies Patiriella, when the waiter is out of earshot. "How could I forget? Insects in the newspapers for days, ANIC footage on the TV news."
"This is bigger. Breeding colonies have been established at secret locations near Albany and two more are planned for the Launceston area."
"What is it? Another moth?"
"We aren't to know. There are hints, though. Conventional poisons won't help. The only way to control these things will be with an attractant, a pheromone tailored to this one, genetically modified disrupter."
Patiriella sighs. "I don't know. Terrorism seems so...extreme."
"This isn't terrorism," enthuses Austrochorema. "It's direct action. The Commonwealth just needs to be reminded of the importance of zoological expertise. Pheromone traps will be activated when our demands are met: full restoration of zoology faculties and courses at universities across Australia, return of ABRS funding to CPI-indexed 2015 levels, guest spots for soil zoologists on the ABC-TV gardening program..."
"I know, I've read the manifesto. But can we trust the bastards?"
Austrochorema smirks. "They'll keep their promises this time. If they want the beaches to be safe."
Patiriella's eyes widen. "I've heard nothing about this! And I'm in Marine Section!"
The younger woman breathes gently on the candle between them. For a moment, the flame grows. "We have friends overseas, Patiriella."
(To be continued, unless the Decadal Plan reverses the trends. If not... luz.)