Back in the matrix, Case watches Kuang expand and tells Dixie that Wintermute killed Armitage—ejecting him into space with his hatch open. Case is worried because he thinks Armitage was the only one who could flush out the toxin sacs, but Dixie thinks Wintermute also knows how. Case doesn’t trust Wintermute to help him, and Dixie thinks this means Case is “getting’ smart.”
Case is finally starting to understand what Dixie has known all along—Wintermute is not predictable nor is it reliable. Case will continue to collaborate with the AI, but he will also be more careful and skeptical, realizing he cannot know Wintermute’s true alliances or motivations.
Through the simstim, Case watches Molly work her way through Straylight. He considers different types of insanity—he understands Armitage/Corto, a man who was broken and then reconstructed, but he doesn’t understand Ashpool. Case realizes he’d never considered anyone as powerful as Ashpool as human. When he thought of power, he thought of immortal corporations, but realizes the Tessier-Ashpool family isn’t like that—it is made up of a finite number of mortal, insane individuals, steeped in “soiled humanity.”
Ironically, although Case can think of Dixie and Wintermute as almost human, Ashpool, who is actually human, doesn’t earn Case’s empathy. Case sees Ashpool as more of a corporate entity than a human man, so powerful he’s somehow managed to sidestep emotions and mental illness.
Case flips to the matrix. Dixie tells him Kuang is working well. As they talk, the Finn/Wintermute appears in the distance, walking across the body of the virus. Case accuses him of killing Armitage, and the Finn/Wintermute explains he had to; Armitage was gone, and only Corto (who was not useful to him) was left. Still, the Finn/Wintermute promises to get Case the enzyme that will dissolve the bonds on his toxin sacs.
Wintermute proves to be as callous as Dixie warned it would be. Although Armitage/Corto was Wintermute’s long-time collaborator, Wintermute had no lingering loyalty after Corto stopped being useful. Wintermute’s promise to Case must be taken lightly, given Wintermute’s unreliable loyalty, but Case holds out hope anyway.
The Finn/Wintermute complains that humans are “a pain.” He understands Dixie and constructs like him, who act predictable, but struggles to predict human’s inherently unpredictable behavior, like Molly running into Ashpool.
Just as Case struggles to understand Wintermute’s motivations, Wintermute struggles to understand humankind and behaviors that veer outside of their predicted profiles.
Case wonders why Ashpool killed himself, and the Finn/Wintermute gives him an abbreviated version of the man’s history: Ashpool had wanted to kill himself for a long time, but kept being put back in cold storage. However, when he was in cold storage, he had awful dreams, sending him over the edge. These dreams were caused by 3Jane, who messed with his cryogenic sleep, but learned how from Wintermute.
What Wintermute conceals and refuses to take full responsibility for is the fact that Ashpool wants to kill himself. His mental health has not degraded in a vacuum; instead, Wintermute has been influencing 3Jane to manipulate his dreams because Wintermute dislikes Ashpool and know he stands in the way of Wintermute’s independence.
Case wonders who will help him with the toxin sacs after the mission is complete, as Wintermute has said he’ll be gone. The Finn/Wintermute explains that he doesn’t fully know, but he expects to be “part of something bigger. Much bigger.” The parts of him that exist now will be absorbed into that bigger entity, which will help Case.
Case has no real reason to believe Wintermute can or will help him in the future, but at this point he has no other choice. He’s already committed himself to carrying out the mission for Molly’s sake, not his own, and freeing himself of the toxin would be a happy bonus.
As The Finn/Wintermute turns and walks away, Dixie calls out to him. He wants to make sure he, like Case, gets his payoff. He wants to be erased.
Although not fully human, Dixie has wants and needs. He dislikes his half-life, and would rather be fully dead.
Case flips to Molly’s simstim, watching her walk though Straylight. Case can feel the pain in her once broken leg, which is hurting again. Although Case can’t respond, Molly begins to talk to him through their link. She tells him if she dies before Riviera, she wants Case to tell him “It was Molly.”
Molly has poisoned Riviera’s drug supply, and knows that even if she dies, he will find his drugs, take them, and die. Molly hates Riviera and will take pleasure in his death, even if it requires her own.
Ahead of Molly are a series of holograms. The first is a cluster of caricatures—Molly, Armitage, and Case. Molly’s is hyper sexualized. Armitage has tiny screens in his eyes playing a Siberian snowstorm. Case’s hologram looks essentially like him. Riviera, who created them, found nothing to parody for Case.
Riviera’s holograms, although not real in a physical sense, nonetheless reveal his thoughts and feelings towards the members of his team, and have the ability to hurt and offend them.
Molly continues down the hallway, passing more holograms—scenes of torture, monsters, and finally a little diorama that Molly has to bend down to see. In it, a cluster of feral children surround a soldier, feeding on him. Disgusted, Molly stands. She recognizes now more than ever how disturbed Riviera is, but also that his dysfunction is what drew 3Jane to him and convinced her to let him into her fortress.
Riviera was chosen for the team because of his disturbed personality, in hopes it would attract 3Jane’s attention. This plan worked, but unfortunately Molly and Case must also deal with his perverse holograms. Although illusions, they reveal details about his internal life, and maybe even his disturbing past.
Molly continues to walk. She approaches a gash in the wall of the tunnel: the entrance to 3Jane’s world. She raises her hand to her mouth and kisses it—a goodbye kiss to Case. Then she descends the staircase.
Throughout the past few chapters, Molly has been coming to terms with her possible death. She still cares about Case, but not enough to save her own life to be with him.