Thursday, 29 September 2016

Murder in the Generative Kitchen by Meg Pontecorvo

Title: Murder in the Generative Kitchen
Author: Meg Pontecorvo
Genre: Science Fiction

With the Vacation Jury Duty system, jurors can lounge on a comfortable beach while watching the trial via virtual reality. Julio is loving the beach, as well as the views of a curvy fellow juror with a rainbow-lacquered skin modification who seems to be the exact opposite of his recent ex-girlfriend back in Chicago. Because of jury sequestration rules, they can’t talk to each other at all, or else they’ll have to pay full price for this Acapulco vacation. Still, Julio is desperate to catch her attention. But while he struts and tries to catch her eye, he also becomes fascinated by the trial at hand.
 At first it seemed a foregone conclusion that the woman on trial used a high-tech generative kitchen to feed her husband a poisonous meal, but the more evidence mounts, the more Julio starts to suspect the kitchen may have made the decision on its own.

Excerpt #1:

A redheaded woman was testifying. Julio flicked the control pod, and her credentials scrolled across the screen: Melissa Zymboski, EMT. As she described the team’s arrival and unsuccessful efforts to resuscitate Mr. Ellis, the camera lingered on Mrs. Ellis. The close-up magnified every wrinkle, as well as her salt-and-pepper hair, the hollows under her eyes, and her double chin. Of course, the court prohibited defendants from preparing for the trial by doctoring their appearances through body sculpting. But Mrs. Ellis looked so frumpish that he doubted she had ever set foot in a sculpting studio—which seemed odd for the wife of a wealthy businessman.

Julio fiddled with the controls to see if he could switch the camera angle or viewpoint. No luck. He increased his thumb pressure on the touch pad and the contrast changed. The bluescreen behind Mrs. Ellis faded, replaced by shadowy images of the patio: palm trunks, umbrellaed tables, the tiki bar. Now he understood how jurors could wander around the resort while wearing their headsets. He craned his neck, rearranging his field of vision to position Mrs. Ellis beside the tiki bar. He turned his head. Even better: a parade of shadow people sauntered across the patio on their way to the beach cabanas.

Bored by the testimony, he began to track the silhouettes of bikini-clad women, following one, then switching in favor of a better specimen, until, over Mrs. Ellis’s left shoulder, a rainbow danced along the opposite edge of the pool.

He felt as if he were staring through a kaleidoscope. As the silhouette moved, the colors scrambled: cobalt and magenta, gold and mother-of-pearl, flickering along perfectly proportioned female curves—so different from Toni’s lean, boyish body.

He took off the headset to behold the vision. Balancing one foot on a deckchair, a petite young woman wound her long bronze braid into a loose knot at the nape of her neck. She was shorter than Toni, who was exactly his height.

He guessed that this woman was in her early twenties. She wore a white bandeau, which barely covered her generous breasts, and a tiny ruffled swim skirt. Along the rich brown skin of her arms and legs ran swirls of iridescence. Julio had heard about the process—a biometallic lacquer applied to the skin—but had never known anyone who had dared to try it. The polarization on his headset must have magnified the effect.

Catching the sunlight, the colors swirled across the darkness of her skin. Iris, he thought. Arco iris. Rainbow girl.

The Author:

A writer and artist dedicated to multiple genres, Meg Pontecorvo earned an MFA in Poetry Writing from Washington University in St. Louis and is a 2010 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Meg has published a novelette, “Grounded,” in Asimov’s, and her artwork in collage and pen has been featured in experimental video performances in the Bay Area. A native of Philadelphia, she grew up in the Midwest and now shares a small apartment with her partner and cats in San Francisco, where she cooks in a tech-free kitchen.

Excerpt #2:

The green bot switched off the display screen. “Dr. Bixby, can you clarify your assertion that knowledge about the almond-derived cyanide is ‘widely available’?”

“I meant that, on a home or mobile vidscreeen, anyone can enter ‘cyanide’ as a search term and discover bitter almonds as a source.”

“Is that all? Are there sites that reveal how to bioengineer almonds to create enough cyanide to kill a person?”


“And, in your professional opinion, could someone with no lab expertise whatsoever, follow the instructions given on such sites?”

The toxicologist hesitated again. “I don’t see why not. Even for a layman, it would be like following a recipe.”

“Oh really?” snapped the defense bot. “Bioengineering in ten easy steps?”

Dr. Bixby shook his head. “It’s not a matter of the person’s expertise. With the database presets and option for accelerant net enhancement, the hyper-functionality, and the user-to-content adapto-buffering capabilities of a generative kitchen, anyone could perform bio-engineering tasks related to food.”

“Can you restate your point in less technical language?”

“I mean that these kitchens—they’re like having a home laboratory. And their job is to simplify food-related tasks. The kitchen can do all the work.”

“So the kitchen could have bioengineered the cyanide without any participation from the defendant?”

“Well, yes, but someone would have to initiate the process—give the command.”

“How explicit would that command need to be?” asked the defense bot.

“Objection,” said the prosecution bot. “Dr. Bixby is not an expert on state-of-the-art kitchens.”

“Overruled,” replied the judge bot and nodded at the witness.

“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Bixby. “Would you repeat the question?”

“Can a generative kitchen alter food to bioengineer poison, with no direct command from a human being?”

“As I understand the technology, we would need to reinterpret the concept of ‘command,’ since generative kitchens are intended to assess and respond to the desires of their owners, conscious or unconscious. But I don’t think that such a kitchen could act on its own volition. A generative kitchen is a machine, and there are fail-safes.”

The defense bot leaned forward and gripped the railing of the witness box. “But Mr. Ellis is dead, sir. And, according to the kitchen’s own logs, the cyanide was processed as a component of the meal, in the kitchen and by the kitchen, on the night the meal was served. So, I ask you again: based on your understanding of the bioengineering of cyanide from bitter almonds, would a generative kitchen be able to make the poison—or, really, make the almonds excessively poisonous—on its own agency?”

“No, I don’t think so. I can’t imagine how the protocols against that could go wrong.”

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