Concentration creasing his features, Nick stared at the large printout showing a steeply declining line in a chart headed
COCKROACH - GLOBAL DISTRIBUTION.
With a frown, he turned around to face his colleague.
“Stu, with all due respect, these figures simply can't be right. Cockroaches are one of the most successful species full stop, even said to survive nuclear disaster, yet according to this chart they seem to very suddenly be headed straight for global extinction.”
Stuart ran his hand through his thick, brown hair.
“I've checked the data and data sources several times with the same result. There’s nothing out of the ordinary,” he said in a gravelly voice suitable for a cigarette ad. “I also spoke to the IT colleagues to make sure that no change was made to the program. I can’t explain it, but there’s nothing pointing to any kind of problem. There's nothing else I can think of, it appears the figures are indeed correct.”
Nick went to the water dispenser perched precariously on the edge of an overflowing metal shelf, which had been carelessly fixed to the wall.
Many people were taken aback at the first sight of Nick’s office. Haphazard stacks of books, magazines and papers occupied every available bit of shelf and desk as well as much of the floor space. But what to others appeared to be considerable chaos, to Nick was a time-saving arrangement of information. Whenever necessary, he could immediately point to the right pile and exact location of a particular, deeply buried item.
In keeping with their surroundings, the walls were covered by diagrams and printouts, the only unobstructed item a worn photograph next to Nick’s desk. It showed him with his arm around Sue’s shoulders, both of them wearing loud Hawaiian T-Shirts and grinning inanely at the camera.
Nick drew some water and absentmindedly adjusted his glasses. It sounded like Stuart had been thorough, but Nick also knew he still lacked experience. At least regarding the current context he was working in.
One of Sikin’s most knowledgeable IT experts, Stuart had not long been assigned to Nick’s investigation of the recent inexplicable data mismatches. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about species and their habits. Although Nick was glad to finally have a helping hand, he would have preferred someone more practised. Someone with enough know-how to immediately assess the viability of certain data.
Nick took a deep breath and turned his attention back
“If it wasn't so serious I'd say who would miss the roaches anyway? But joking aside, Stu, Sikin’s reputation depends on the accuracy of their research and findings. We can’t afford any oversights. So here’s what we do: I want you to
spot-check other insect populations while I take a look at the rest. There must be a mistake somewhere, maybe we can pinpoint it by looking at the other data pools. To save time, we'll for now limit the data to the three latest delta lists.”
Stuart raised his eyebrows. “Delta lists?”
“They’re the ones showing only the differences in numbers between the last four checkpoints. It will be quicker than going through the complete figures. Our primary goal is to assess if this is an isolated incident or whether we perhaps have some sort of pervasive computer error.”
After Stuart had left his office, Nick sat down in front of his computer and called up Sikin’s main application. Presently, the entry screen appeared.
Not easily impressed by modern technology, Nick had to admit Sikin's state of the art software was well designed, incredibly fast and easy to use. Powered by a custom-built petascale supercomputer able to process quadrillions of floating point operations per second, even the most complex modelling tasks completed in a mere flash. Evaluations and information exchange were quick and efficient, the data volumes that could be processed in seconds enormous.
As usual, Sikin had spared no expense.
Nick was proud to be employed by one of the technologically most advanced companies in the world.
Sikin was a company well-known for its efficient trapping systems, covering most species around the globe. Since its foundation in the late nineties, the centre's field research and computing capabilities had far surpassed competitors’ in every respect, and although the monitoring of species population numbers still was their core business, contracts for simulating the impact of varying environmental conditions on different species had become one of the main sources of income. Nick played a pivotal role in many of Sikin’s projects, but even though he was computer savvy, his true passion remained nature.
Having been brought up in the in the beautiful Dorset countryside, he was very much an outdoors person, and studying biology had been a natural choice. By contrast, his involvement with maths and computers had been more or less accidental, thanks to a stint in a project investigating the dynamics between freshwater diatoms and mayfly naiads under the influence of various industrial pollutants.
Nick’s aptitude for numbers and quick grasp of the computer pretty much determined the future projects he was given, and sadly, field science had featured less and less over the years.
With a few mouse clicks, Nick pulled up a customised report summarising the change in various small carnivorous mammal populations in Britain over the last ten years. Several showed a curve similar to the cockroach chart. Sometimes steady, often slowly declining, in rare cases increasing until recently – but each with a sharp drop in the last few weeks.
With growing concern, Nick broadened the report to include the rest of Europe, followed by the Americas and Asia. They all showed the same anomalous trends.
Finally, Nick leant back in his cheap office chair.
Chewing the end of his pen into oblivion, he stared at the zebra chart, willing it to enlighten him. The same odd picture the world over.
Something major was amiss; he would have to find out exactly what and why.