Case sits in the Chatsubo, a bar in Chiba, Japan, that primarily caters to expats. The bartender, Ratz, wonders if he has business with Wage, who was in the bar earlier in the day. Case observes Ratz, whose “ugliness was the stuff of legend.” The bartender has an antique Russian prosthetic arm, ending in a claw.
In the novel’s near-future setting, almost everyone has access to plastic (or aesthetic) surgeries. Ratz is notable because although he could be beautiful, he chooses not to, instead making his ugliness his identity.
The conversation in the bar quiets, and Case overhears a drunken man claim that the “Chinese bloody invented nerve-splicing” and can easily fix anyone up. Japan, and Chiba specifically, have cutting edge black market clinics, but Case bitterly remarks that this claim is “bullshit.”
In this version of the future, medical technology has evolved to solve almost every conceivable issue; however, Case is forever resentful that his nerve injury is one of the few too complex to be healed.
Case has been to every neurosurgery clinic in Chiba, and knows first-hand that they cannot repair his particular nerve damage. He used to be a console cowboy, but now he’s just a hustler who uses drugs to numb his pain and often wakes up “trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.”
Ratz tells Case he saw “your girl,” Linda Lee, last night. Case responds that he doesn’t have a girl, and leaves the bar. Case recounts the last few years of his life: he is twenty-four, but has already worked for many years as a console cowboy. He was a thief, stealing money and data, until, at twenty-two, he stole from his employers, who punished him and promised he’d never work again.
Case has spent much of his young life motivated by self-interest and greed. He is now struggling in Chiba because he betrayed former employers and is no longer with his ex, Linda, because he turned her into a drug addict. He cares about himself, first and foremost, which only hurts him in the end.
Case’s employers used a mycotoxin to damage his nervous system so that he would be unable to hook up his brain to the matrix and work in cyberspace. He describes this mutilation as “the Fall.” As a cowboy he’d though of his body as “meat,” now he is trapped in “the prison of his own flesh.”
After his firing and mutilation, Case moved to Japan, hoping to find a cure in Chiba, but his money ran out without finding a cure. Hopeless, he now works as a hustler and real-world thief. He feels himself spiraling out of control, and feels Ninsei wearing him down. He knows death is the “accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness” and breaches of protocol, yet he’s been increasingly lazy and careless.
Now that he’s cut off from cyberspace, Case feels there’s nothing to live for. He has no real allegiance to his bosses, and no close friends or romantic partners. He knows that his behavior will kill him, either by his body shutting down or his bosses putting a price on his head, but he doesn’t care.
Case takes a pink, octagonal stimulant pill as he sits in a café. He reflects on his own sloppiness— he knows he is engaged in an “arc of […] self-destruction,” obvious to himself and his customers who have dropped off. He knows he will die soon, and looks forward to it.
Case’s drug addiction helps him cope with his daily life, but he still doesn’t want to be alive. The selfishness that cost him his job as a console cowboy has disappeared; now, instead of caring about himself, he cares about nothing at all.
Case remembers meeting his ex, Linda Lee, in an arcade. He’d immediately fixated on her, and they went home together and had sex. However, after dating for a month, he turned her into a drug addict like himself, and watched her “personality fragment,” as she was overtaken with “raw need, the hungry armature of addiction.”
Case’s relationship with Linda was a selfish one. He didn’t care about her wants, needs, or wellbeing—only about what she could give him. Unfortunately, he got her hooked on the same drugs he used in an attempt to numb the pain of his life, and through her addiction was able to see the horrible changes addiction can create in a personality.
Back in the present, Case is high. He spots Linda Lee, who joins him at his table, offers him a cigarette, and asks how he’s doing. She tells him Wage, his sometimes employer, wants to hurt him over a debt. Case knows other people owe Wage more money than he does, but Linda Lee worries Wage will make an example of Case.
Linda still seems to care about Case, even though he actively introduced her to drugs and ruined her life. In fact, so far, she is the only person so far who has expressed concern for Case. Maybe it’s his drug-induced high, or maybe its his total apathy, but Case seems relatively unphased by Linda’s revelation.
Seeing Linda fills Case with “lust and loneliness.” Watching her shiver and sweat, Case worries about her. Discovering she has nowhere to sleep, he gives her fifty New Yen. She tries to turn it down, insisting he needs it to pay Wage back, but eventually takes the money and leaves.
Linda is the first person Case expresses any concern about, including himself. He is willing to put himself into greater debt to keep her safe. However, since he seems to have a death-wish, this is maybe still self-serving, as it just makes his own situation more desperate and potentially deadly.
Case leaves and wanders through Night City. He he senses his professional and personal “walls were standing to crumble,” which excites him. The week before he’d delayed a sale to make money; Wage, his supplier, disliked this, and might have put a hit out on Case.
The last time Case betrayed an employer, they destroyed his ability to connect to the matrix, but he hasn’t learned his lesson. He remains self-serving, even if he puts himself in danger.
Case stops in a shop window to examine some shuriken, which he sees as “the stars under which he voyaged, his destiny spelled out in a constellation of cheap chrome,” and decides to see Julius Deane, a smuggler whom he hopes will advise him.
The shuriken represents a new, more exciting (if not necessarily happier) future for Case. Unbeknownst to him, his destiny is already spelled out—determined by Armitage, Molly, and Wintermute, who have tapped him to join their team (although he doesn’t know it yet). Thinking about his future causes him to take action to protect himself.
Julie is 135, but remains healthy through serums, hormones, and an annual reset of his DNA. Case meets him in his office, and tells Julie that a friend told him Wage wants to kill him. Julie first cautions Case that it isn’t “always easy to know who your friend are,” and then explains that because Julie has a working relationship with Wage, he can’t disclose everything he knows. Still, he tells Case that, to his knowledge, Wage isn’t after him, and even promises Case a job if he isn’t dead in a week. Case thanks him and leaves.
Julie uses technology to enhance and extend his life. When Julie warns Case that it’s hard to know who your friends are, he is referring to his relationship to Case, as much as he is to Case’s relationship to Linda. In Chiba, most people are only looking out for themselves. This notion extends to Julie, who cares less about Case and more about protecting his business relationships.
As he walks, Case suddenly realizes he’s being followed. He catches his stalker in a window—it’s Molly. Spooked, Case tries to rent a gun, but unwilling to wait the two hours it would take for the suppliers to get one, he goes to the shuriken shop and buys a cobra—a spring loaded billy club.
Faced for the first time with a real, physical threat, Case decides he does care about this own life after all. Shurikens often appear in relation to Molly, and here symbolizes the start of their personal and professional relationship.
Case returns to the Chat looking for Wage, but doesn’t find him. Back outside, he senses he is being followed again. He dashes into an arcade, breaks through into an empty room, and punches through the window to a back alley. He stands in the room, listening to footsteps outside, cobra in hand, but as his “octagon-induced bravado” collapses, he turns and and slides through the window into the back alley.
High on octagons—the stimulant he took earlier—Case temporarily has the bravery to stand and fight. However, at heart, Case is not a particularly brave or violent person, and so as the drugs wear off, he flees.
Case decides to throw out the cobra and rent a gun, which is now available. Case then visits a coffin he’s rented for the past year in Cheap Hotel. He doesn’t sleep there, but uses it for storage. In the coffin is a Hitatchi pocket computer and a flask, kept in a cooler on ice. He calls potential buyers for the RAM in the Hitatchi, but one doesn’t answer and the other doesn’t have the money. Frustrated, he returns to the Chat.
Although Molly doesn’t work for Wage, Case thinks she does, and so suddenly the threat of bodily harm or death seems real. For the first time in a year, his sense of self-preservation has kicked in, and he’s suddenly willing to take action to save his own life.
Case enters the Chat with a pistol in one pocket and his flask in the other. Ratz notes Case looks bad. Case wonders if Ratz has heard anything about a fight in the arcade—Ratz heard a girl, Molly, cut up a security guard. Wage enters the Chat with two men. Although Wage is here for Case, Ratz fights back, and his employee Kurt aims a riot gun at Wage and his guards. Case thanks Ratz for the help, but Ratz rebuffs him, pointing out Wage “should know better” than starting a fight in his bar. Case takes out his gun, which Ratz immediately confiscates and unloads. Wage sends his two men to wait outside and tries to have a calm conversation with Case
Case confuses his relationship with Ratz for friendship. In fact, Ratz is just a business proprietor, and his priorities are taking care of himself and his establishment. Case thinks that Ratz is on his side, when in fact, Ratz simply has rules—which include “no fighting in the Chat.” Wage’s willingness to have a calm conversation suggests that at least some of Case’s fear is just paranoia, perhaps induced by his stimulant addiction.
Wage asks who told Case that Wage was after him. Case doesn’t answer but gives Wage his flask, which he says is “Pituitaries. Get you five hundred if you move it fast.” Wage tells Case they’re even, but notes that Case looks bad. Case collects his gun and cartridge and leaves the bar, hoping to get back his deposit on the weapon.
Case protects Linda Lee by paying his debt and keeping his silence with a flask of black market hormones, which he knows will repay what he owes. Everyone around Case can see that he’s struggling, but no one cares enough to help.
Returning to his coffin in Cheap Hotel, Case realizes Linda Lee stole the RAM in his Hitachi, important files that she will probably sell. He’s betrayed but understands her motivations—she probably just wants a ticket home.
Although Case thought Linda was looking out for him, he realizes she is still just concerned with her own well-being as his. However, he understands her motivations and addictions, so he doesn’t hold a grudge.
Case approaches his coffin, noticing the broken lock. He crawls inside and is startled by Molly, dressed in all black, wearing mirrored glasses, and pointing a fletcher at him. She explains she isn’t with Wage, like he had thought. She’s come to collect him for her employer. She explains she just wants to bring him back in one piece, and doesn’t want to hurt him, but flexes her hands anyway—showing off the retractable scalpel blades embedded in her fingertips.
Molly’s body modifications are a part of her identity. Her finger blades and implanted lenses are with her at all times. Although tools of her trade, she has them even in her private life, preventing her from living normally. However, she likes this; as she repeats throughout the novel, her work is her life.