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The CAT that Killed Curiosity

Gretchen Tessmer is a writer/attorney based in the U.S./Canadian borderlands. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Nature, Abyss & Apex, and Strange Horizons, among many other venues. Keep up with her latest writing projects on Twitter @missginandtonic.

The week before Christmas, Dr. Emily Sycorax's waiting room is crammed full with parka-bundled, wooly-mitten-wearing patients.
Too many waited until the last possible moment to comply with Proposition 1. It's understandable, since the wording was a little vague and even though the end result is overwhelmingly supported by the entire constituency, it's a busy time of year and people get distracted. But with the deadline of January 1st looming, everyone is finally getting their act together and taking a few minutes out of their last-minute Christmas shopping to visit their local family practitioner.
The procedure takes no more than five minutes. That's guaranteed in the state-issued pamphlet. Dr. Sycorax is averaging three minutes and the patient flow in her waiting room has been smooth and steady all morning. But there's always that one patient that slows things down. Or three, in this case.
"Here, you can do Ariel first," Priscilla, the overbearing mother, pushes her youngest daughter, four-year-old Ariel towards the doctor, while keeping her frustrated gaze firmly locked on her older daughter, sixteen-year-old Miranda, who slumps down in a nearby chair with a frown that exceeds her mother's in every way.
"It's not right," Miranda mutters, obviously continuing a conversation that started long before they entered the examination room.
"Miranda, I swear, if you don't--" Priscilla begins testily, but Dr. Sycorax jumps in before she can finish. The doctor has seen some unnecessary hesitation from a few patients (her own son comes to mind) during this whole process and she's ready to allay all lingering fears.
"It's a safe procedure," Dr. Sycorax mentions, as she lifts little Ariel off the ground and places her on the examination table. Ariel isn't afraid because Priscilla has promised that it won't hurt and that they can go ice-skating at the gazebo in the park afterwards. Ariel watches the doctor's animated features as the woman continues, enthusiastically, "And I'm guessing you've both read the articles and pamphlets or watched the broadcasts about what CAT will mean to us in the future? This is an extremely exciting time. Not just for scientists, you know, but--I mean, the applications in job placement and education alone are incredible. Thirteen years of primary and secondary education will be condensed into a five-minute download."
"Oh, Miranda's researched it all," Priscilla grumbles, shaking her head ruefully. Her eldest daughter has plenty of trust issues. She takes after Priscilla's ex-husband in all his most annoying ways. Miranda crosses her arms over her chest and answers her mother's tart comment with one of her own.
"At least one of us has," she says bluntly.
"Then you know this is an amazing breakthrough. It's the biggest scientific advancement since... well, ever." Dr. Sycorax can't suppress her own excitement. But she's misreading the room. She still thinks fear is the underlying current of discord between this particular mother and daughter. Dr. Sycorax pulls on a fresh pair of latex gloves and reaches for a syringe out of the box sent to her by the USDA. The box is filled with syringes labeled Uniform CAT Injection--Single Use.
"It's one thing to accept this yourself but to make the decision for Ariel--she's a child, Mother," Miranda insists. She repeats, "A child. You're stealing her free will."
Priscilla laughs, in the variety of "can you believe what she's saying?" She doesn't appreciate being judged on her parenting skills by her own daughter. She shouldn't have to justify her actions--it's the law, for god's sake. But does Miranda listen? No, of course she doesn't. Because she's sixteen and thinks that she knows everything. And because her father was exactly the same way.
"Don't be so dramatic," Priscilla snaps at Miranda. "Free will has nothing to do with any of this. And I'm not stealing anything from her. In fact, if I didn't have her get the injection, I'd be stealing knowledge from her. Do you want that? Do you want your sister to grow up without any access to the collective knowledge of our society? God, Miranda, it's a no-brainer. You act like CAT is some sort of mind-control drug. It's a Combined Adapter and Translator. It's just Google, okay? But in your head, which makes it faster and free. Everyone is getting one."
"So we're taking lessons from lemmings now?" Miranda's reply is salty.
"How can you be so young and not want the newest gadget?" Priscilla throws up her hands, exasperated, turning to Dr. Sycorax for some assistance. "I seriously don't know what else to tell her."
"It's natural to feel afraid of the unknown," the doctor flicks the top of the syringe twice. "But, Miranda, this really is an easy decision. There's no downside. Once you receive the injection, you're linked to the mainframe and can download whatever you want, whenever you want. If you want to know how to do my job, you can! All my experiences, knowledge, education will be available, just like everybody else's, not just at your fingertips anymore, but actually in your head. Your little sister here will have the knowledge to do brain surgery at the age of five. Isn't that amazing?"
The expression on Miranda's face says she feels otherwise. She's so frustrated, she considers crying. But she's tried tears with her mother and Priscilla won't budge.
"She'll never know curiosity," Miranda struggles to keep her voice level. "She'll never know the joy of discovering something new. She won't have to learn how to ride a bike, or wonder if Santa Claus is real, or if that kid across the aisle has a crush on her, or anything. You can't just bypass the personality-forming part of our lives without consequences."
"You're a teenager, Miranda," Priscilla states, as she has many times before. "You're too young to understand. This is an adult decision. This is the right decision. And Ariel will thank me for it later. So just cut it out, okay?"
"I can't watch you do this," Miranda blinks back a couple more angry, frustrated tears as she pushes herself out of her seat and goes for the door. Her mother calls her back, but Miranda ignores her demands and leaves the doctor's office in a rush, pushing her way back through the crowded waiting room and out the front door, disappearing into the swirling, snow-sparkled weather on the other side.
Priscilla stews. Why they set the age of informed consent at thirteen on Prop 1, she'll never know.
"We're all set." In the meantime, Dr. Sycorax has removed the syringe from Ariel's little wrist. As promised, it didn't hurt at all. Because it's an injection on a minor, the liquid transmitter has pooled beneath the skin in the shape of a cat's face. Ariel likes it. She likes the way it seems to purr beneath the skin. She smiles up at her mother, but Priscilla's expression is miserable and she's still looking out the door, in the direction of Miranda's abrupt exit.
Miranda doesn't come home after she leaves Dr. Sycorax's office. Priscilla considers calling around but then realizes the notion is outdated.
After the deadline, there are still some who haven't complied with the provisions of Prop 1. The number is a little higher than expected but, on the bright side, the list of those out of compliance is compiled and disseminated among everyone else in fewer than twelve minutes. Miranda's name is one of many on the list.
In another life, Ariel might have wondered what happened to her sister for a long time. As it was, the non-compilers are identified and rounded up within a few days after the deadline. Ariel hears a muted purr at her wrist followed by a quick tick tick tick.
After a thirty second download of the daily news, Ariel knows exactly what they did with her sister.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 30th, 2018

Author Comments

I heart Google as much as the next person. As a writer, it's hard not to appreciate how quickly you can find a zillion articles on cauterizing wounds on the battlefield or wagon trains that went missing from 1850-1870 or how luminescence works. And, of course, it's also super useful for giving me the lyrics to the song I just heard on the radio. But, oh I don't know, doesn't it all seem a little too easy sometimes? This story considers what happens next in the pursuit of rapid, downloadable knowledge.

- Gretchen Tessmer
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