Hard to say exactly when the human species fractured…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Devil’s Dictionary by Steven Kotler, the follow up to Last Tango in Cyberspace, out from St. Martin’s Press on April 19th.
Hard to say exactly when the human species fractured. Harder to say when this new talent arrived. But Lion Zorn, protagonist of Last Tango in Cyberspace, is the first of his kind—an empathy tracker, an emotional forecaster, with a felt sense for how culture evolves and the future arrives.
It’s also a useful skill in today’s competitive business market.
In The Devil’s Dictionary, when a routine em-tracking job goes sideways and em-trackers themselves start disappearing, Lion finds himself not knowing who to trust in a life and death race to uncover the truth. And when the trail leads to the world’s first mega-linkage, a continent-wide national park advertised as the best way to stave off environmental collapse, and exotic animals unlike any on Earth start showing up—Lion’s quest for truth becomes a fight for the survival of the species.
PRE-INCIDENT, FOUR MONTHS AGO, LONDON
Six Nation Speak
“People,” says Ramen, like they’re some kind of disease.
He jabs the air with his chopsticks, pointing at something behind Lion’s left shoulder.
Ramen is ancient, Asian, and given to blaring Billy Idol out of the cheap speakers duct-taped to the top of his decrepit food cart. He wears an old chef’s coat over a dirty T-shirt, the sleeves pushed back, revealing arms flecked with burns and scars. Still, there’s truth in his advertising: Ramen makes ramen. “Best in London,” according to the sign, even if you have to sit in the cold rain, under a cheap plastic awning, on the rotting edge of Chinatown, to enjoy it.
Rotting—that is definitely the right word.
Whatever else Chinatown has been, it isn’t that anymore. The place stinks of basic needs gone horribly wrong. The streets are crowded, loud and plastered with living screen billboards, their ceaseless motion lending the air a kind of liquid shimmer. The whole mad crush gives Lion a headache. Still, he knows, if you need to score a drug like Evo, Chinatown is definitely the spot.
“People,” repeats Ramen, jabbing the air again.
This time, Lion takes the hint. Despite a mouthful of spicy glass noodles, he sets down his spoon, pushes back from the counter, and spins around to look at the street behind him.
It’s a blur of bodies. And it’s London: so always this relentless drizzle.
Lion glances right and left, but sees only a parade of cheap plastic raincoats, ratty umbrellas, and living screen billboards. Then he spots them. It’s their stillness that gives them away, an anti-pattern set against this tide of motion. On the sidewalk, about fifteen paces to his left, two Chinese men stand frozen in the rain, staring straight at him.
Both are young, both wear black clothes, but that’s where the re- semblance ends. One has hair angled into five tall spikes, each dyed a Chernobyl yellow. The other looks like he’s just out of boarding school: black sneakers, black satin jacket, black Buddy Holly glasses, and a face like a ten-year-old.
But, you know, the kind of ten-year-old who carries a gun.
Before Lion can react, the universe does it for him. The same instant he catches sight of the duo, a momentary hush falls across Chinatown. It’s a cosmic timing thing, one of those impossible possibles: a hundred conversations silenced at once. The only sound is the music blaring from the speakers and an old whore giggling from the edge of a nearby alley.
“In the midnight hour,” sings Billy Idol, “she cried more, more, more.”
The whore says, “Baby, ain’t nobody giving blow jobs for bitcoin these days. That’s so 2020.”
The guy with five spikes for hair whispers to the baby-faced guy with Buddy Holly glasses, leaves his spot on the sidewalk, and saunters toward the food cart. He looks high on something fast. There’s a shiver in his step and a hard twitch to his eyes.
Lion slides a hand inside his jacket, finds the holster, and slips his fingers through the cold metal rings of his death punch. It’s the very first weapon he’s ever had to carry. But since the Splinter—which is a word Lion has come to despise—he’s just trying to be careful.
His death punch is the newer model, stainless nano-steel flex rings, better hydraulics, more precise delivery. Penelope gave it to Lion before he left. The older version, she’d said, you hit the trigger, the electric pistons came out so hard they could kill. This newer one, the one Lion is gripping, it’s just supposed to maim.
Rain drizzles off the plastic awning, pooling in the street. Sidestepping the puddle, Five Spikes crosses to stand near Ramen, between the back of the food cart and the corner of the building, his motorcycle boot resting on the edge of a grease bucket.
Ramen is famine thin, like the weight just never came back. His eyes are tired, his bones frail, and other than the word people, which Ramen just said twice, Lion’s never heard him say a thing. But Ramen doesn’t like anyone this close to him. He sets down the chopsticks, picks up a large knife, and starts sharpening the blade against the cold blue light of a laser-grinder.
Five Spikes smiles at the threat, leans in closer, and says something guttural. The language sounds like one of those newer poly-tribe dialects, the mashed-up lingo that pervades the street. This particular vernacular could be West Coast American hip-hop slang crossed with something Asian, but Five Spikes is speaking too softly for Lion to make out the words.
Ramen says something back, then sets down the knife and picks up his chopsticks. Tension fades from the scene. The twitch that Lion’s feeling, maybe that’s just street paranoia. Maybe this has nothing to do with him.
Lion relaxes his grip on the death punch, slides his bowl back in front of him, and goes heads down into the soup. But before he can shovel a slice of tofu into his mouth, Ramen’s chopsticks poke the air again, this time near his chest.
Lion looks up to find both Ramen and Five Spikes glaring at him.
Five Spikes says a few words, Ramen translates. “He say, you em-tracker.”
Lion feels a rush of adrenaline.
After the Splinter, he needed to vanish. So Penelope asked Sir Richard for a serious favor, and Lion emptied his bank account to pay for the scrubbing. His name, his image, his early history as an investigative journalist, his middle history as one of the world’s first em-trackers, his more recent history at the center of the Sietch Tabr controversy— one of the bigger drug scandals turned cultural uprisings in recent blah-blah-blah—all of it supposedly AI-erased from the net.
Lion tries to stay calm, covering his surprise with a spoonful of noodles to the mouth, chewing slowly. “Tell him I’m eating,” he says eventually, eyes flat.
Five Spikes snarls a response. This time the dialect registers. East Asian poly-tribe, what the kids call Six Nation Speak. Lion knows the lingo, every good em-tracker does, but wanting to see how this plays out, he waits for Ramen to translate.
“He say, Go home, Lion Zorn. No more here. He say, London not safe for em-tracker.”
“Tell me about it,” says Lion, sliding his hand back inside his jacket.
But before he can jam his fingers back inside the grip of the death punch, Five Spikes catches sight of something in the distance. His eyes go wide. Then he makes a hard slashing motion with his hand, darts sideways, and disappears. Buddy Holly glasses must have done the same. By the time Lion spins around to look, they’ve both vanished into the rain.
He glances up and down the street, seeing thug life in every direction. The menacing business of pleasure. Tourists searching for a very different kind of vacation, the dealers who service them, the street vendors who take a cut to look the other way, the tired, the lonely, but none of them interested in him.
Yet, when he turns back to the counter, Ramen is interested. He’s standing directly in front of Lion, not smiling.
“Rebel, rebel,” he says, “you finish noodles, you no come back.”
Lion nods, slurping one final gulp of soup into his mouth. He’s not angry. No one needs his kind of trouble, least of all an ancient man wearing a plastic name tag that reads Ramen, serving ramen in Chinatown.
Lion sets down his spoon and pushes back from his stool. Just as he’s about to walk away, he feels a chopstick poke in the shoulder and turns around.
“You want Evolution?” says Ramen.
Lion blinks. He’d asked three days ago, like he was told to, but Ramen hadn’t said a word. He’d come back every day since, and Ramen hadn’t said anything then, either. Now he says, “Evo-loo-shun,” giving the syllables a different twist.
The accent, plus it’s been a little while since Lion’s heard anyone use the drug’s full name. It takes him a second. Then he gets it. Evo, short for Evolution, short for the first clue he’s actually found.
“That would be helpful,” he says, trying to sound casual.
Ramen points his chopsticks toward the giggling whore.
“You want evolution, you go ask Sharijee.”
“Sharijee,” repeats Ramen, with a gap-toothed grin. “Sharijee all the evolution you can handle.”
I Am the Singularity
“I come here on boat, now I own boat.”
The billboard is driving Lion crazy. It’s another living screen, an advertisement for one of those info-marketers turned self-help gurus, Chang Zee, who seems to have self-helped himself to damn near every piece of real estate in this part of London. Like seven different billboards in sight.
But this is where Sharijee wanted to meet: in the rain, beside the “Chang Zee billboard,” at 11:37 p.m. She was very precise. There’s a holographic clock tower in the courtyard to his left, the ghost projection reading 11:58.
So now Lion’s cold, wet, and precisely annoyed.
All seven Chang Zee billboards shift again. They must be synched. And Zee’s version of self-help must involve biohacking. The screens alternate between scenes of Zee’s wealth and fame and scenes of his ongoing transformation. A yacht somewhere tropical and Zee, shirtless, surrounded by bikini-clad women. Cut to Zee onstage, in a flowy white shirt, tribal jewelry, a cashmere scarf, leading a packed crowd of nearly five thousand through his Zen-Christ Tantra Turbo-Boost Executive World Beater Retreat. Cut to a sliver of nano-mesh floating in a blue gel, viewed through an electron microscope, then sucked up into the needle tip of a syringe and injected into Chang Zee’s carotid artery.
“I don’t believe in the Singularity,” says Zee to the camera. “I am the Singularity.”
“Fuck this,” says Lion, starting to walk away. The thought of Kendra and Ibrahim stops him.
He can’t help wondering: Are they already dead?
Excerpted from The Devil’s Dictionary, copyright © 2022 by Steven Kotler.