Back in the matrix, Dixie tells Case he was brain-dead for five seconds. Unconcerned, Case switches to Molly’s simstim. Wintermute has accessed the digital display in her glasses, and displays Case’s name, letting her know he’s riding along. As she crawls through the tunnels inside of Villa Straylight, she tells him a story about a man named Johnny.
Case has never cared much for the health of his body, and remains unconcerned even when he has been literally brain-dead. He is more focused on their mission than his personal wellbeing.
Johnny was Molly’s boyfriend; he worked as a “stash,” hiding data inside of his mind for a fee. Eventually, he started blackmailing clients with traces of their stored data. Molly worked as his bodyguard. The Yakuza (gangsters) were after him, and although Molly killed their first assassin, the second came when she wasn’t home, managing to sneak through her security defenses. After returning to find her lover dead, Molly explains she “never much found anybody I gave a damn about, after that.” Molly’s speech makes Case uncomfortable; he realizes that except in the cubicle, the night before, she’s never revealed any personal details.
This is one of only two insights Molly has given into her past—the other insight being her story about her time working as a sex doll. Molly’s sudden transparency about her life demonstrates both that she has begun to trust and care for Case, but also that she thinks her life might soon be over, and so secrets no longer matter. This story also helps explain why she is reluctant to make personal connections with others—because she did once and was hurt.
Molly has made her way through the inside of the Villa Straylight, arriving at an old wooden door. She picks the lock. Case realizes Wintermute has been manipulating so much around Freeside—drones, door locks, tv screens, but analog technology requires a “human agent.”
Wintermute has incredible power over technology, but requires human collaborators. Without Wintermute’s guidance, Molly would be unable to navigate Straylight, but without Molly, Wintermute would be unable to remove any physical obstacles.
Now in the small closet-like room, Wintermute gives Molly instructions in her visual display—directing her to a drawer in a cabinet in which a key is hidden. Molly speaks to Case through the simstim—explaining Wintermute told her he had watched someone lose the key twenty years ago, and then convinced a child to move it to this room, before killing him, so no one could find it.
Although Wintermute sometimes can appear to have understanding or empathy, in the end, it is self-serving. It is willing to kill and sacrifice others in order to make sure its plan comes to fruition.
Case flips to the matrix, watching Kuang grow. Case tells Dixie he was right—Wintermute is kept under control by a manual override, the robotic head from the Finn’s story, who needs to hear a code word. Dixie warns Case to stop referring to Wintermute as “he,” and instead as “it.” Case jacks out for a moment, assuring Maelcum he’s fine, before jacking into Molly’s simstim. He watches her ignore Wintermute’s instructions, and take the wrong fork in a hallway.
Dixie understands what Case does not—that Wintermute is not quite a person, and that by personifying it, Case is putting himself in danger. Dixie, who is also not quite a person, can more easily see Wintermute for what it truly is. Meanwhile, Case’s pronoun usage is actually a sign of admirable, if foolish, empathy.
Molly hears a voice, and approaches, accidentally stepping into a neural disruptor’s field, which causes her to collapse to the ground. The room’s inhabitant notices her. He takes her fletcher and guides her inside. The man introduces himself as Ashpool. He tells Molly that she’s interrupted his suicide.
Wintermute will later complain about the inherent unpredictability of humans, and how difficult it is to control beings that have freewill and make surprising choices (like Molly did, ignoring its instructions).
Ashpool explains that he’s been asleep for the past thirty years, having strange dreams for much of that time, although he was told he would not dream at all. Now, the computer system at Villa Straylight has woken him up, informing him the “artificial intelligences are mad.” However, he hasn’t made any effort to address the AIs. Instead, he thawed “a Jane” (a clone who is legally his daughter) to have sex with. As he explains this to Molly, he falls asleep.
Although Ashpool’s dreams were obviously dreams, and not real, they had an outsized effect on his mental state. His dreams were disturbing enough that he now would rather die than return to his frozen, but disturbing sleep.
Molly takes her gun back, exploring the room. She discovers Ashpool killed the Jane in his bed. Molly looks at the woman’s face; through the simstim, Case sees the face transform into Linda Lee and back. He realizes Molly cannot see this, as it happened only on the simstim. Molly crosses the room to Ashpool, and shoots him in the eye with a toxin dart, killing him.
Although Ashpool clearly doesn’t see his cloned daughters as people, Molly does, especially given her history as a sex worker. More than anything, this empathy and solidarity is why Molly shoots Ashpool. The manipulated simstim is obviously an illusion, but one which disturbs and affects Case nonetheless.