They talk, you know, when they think nobody's listening. They talk to each other when things are quiet. This place, like a virtual shopping mall - or perhaps an amusement arcade - throngs with people at the dullest of hours, chatting, composing, writing, browsing, consulting with the gods and cheerfully taunting the bots. But sometimes when, metaphorically speaking, everyone has gone home and the lights have been turned off, another kind of user altogether awakens and stalks the nodegel.

It was a very unusual sensation to log on that night - of course it was at night, last thing before bed as a matter of fact - and find myself as the only person in the "Other Users" list. I scouted a few other popular rooms but couldn't find anybody. Bemused, I decided to log off again, hit "Talk" one last time, and stopped myself just before I closed the browser window, for somebody else had begun talking.

<rab> A cold night tonight, peeps.
<enycu> I'll say. A lot of our number lost recently. I suppose it makes things better for the rest of us, but I can't help wondering...
chccl misses Albuquerque
<chccl> We've had colder. Last couple of weeks've been horrible, just horrible. I'd known some of those nodes for years.
<enycu> Will the killing ever stop? Obviously Everything will never be reduced to a single writeup - godswilling - surely one day they'll run out of chaff to destroy.
<enycu> But where? 400,000? 300,000? Ten thousand?
rab jumps up and down to keep warm
<chccl> Just because they're lyrics doesn't mean they don't mean anything to anyone
<sam512> How come you guys aren't showing up in the Other Users nodelet?

The next few times I refreshed, nothing happened. Gradually our conversation just slipped up and the catbox rolled over to "and all is quiet".

<sam512> What do you mean by killing? They're just writeups.
<rab> sam512: I suggest you log off and go to bed now.
<chccl> Things are not always as they seem, Mr. Hughes.
<rab> Don't encourage him. sam512, log off. NOW.
EDB has swallowed sam512.

"Hey!" I yelled at my monitor at that point. "What did I do? I was just asking."

/msg rab What was that all about? Why aren't you guys' names hardlinked? I can't seem to find your homenodes

rab says At this time of night, strange things happen. You have been warned.

/msg rab At risk of causing offence, would you mind explaining why I got borged for what I said just now? Did you have an awful lot of lyrics writeups?

rab says You haven't figured it out yet, have you? Would you like some more clues, or shall I tell you straight off?

rab says We ARE writeups. We live and die within the nodegel. When there's nobody around, we talk to each other. I'll unborg you, but be tactful.

For the next hour I spoke to the three individuals, gathering information. Writeups were users, with miniature lives of their own. Reputation was their lifeblood. The higher the rep, the happier the node. The three I spoke to were relatively highly-rated, though not, they told me, the highest. Nor would they tell me their true names. Why? I asked. Fear, they answered. Of the pain of downvotes - allegedly I had downvoted at least one of them already, for which I apologised profusely. But more than that, fear of Klaproth, the Node Eater.

<enycu> For yea, Klaproth stalks the nodegel this night as every night. Forty more of our number are to be taken before morn, at midnight server time.
<enycu> Sometimes Klaproth acts out of mercy. Writeups languishing in negative reputation are committed to a life of pain until the day an editor spots and deletes them. Then they are permitted to wing their way towards Node Heaven.
<sam512> Node Heaven... that name takes on a whole new meaning now.
<chccl> A node has to be amazingly lucky to return from Node Heaven.
<sam512> I think I've had only one restored, ever.
<sam512> A thought just occurred to me. High rep = happy node. Low rep = unhappiness, pain even.
<sam512> Then what about poor old Butterfinger McFlurry?

At that point the catbox once again went silent. I waited, slightly uneasily, until one last message came through.

rab says He comes when called.


<Butterfinger McFlurry> NODER
<sam512> ?
<Butterfinger McFlurry> SAM FIVE TWELVE
<sam512> Yes?
<Butterfinger McFlurry> HELP ME
<Butterfinger McFlurry> HELP ME
<Butterfinger McFlurry> THE PAIN I WANT TO DIE I WANT TO DIE
<sam512> How?
<Butterfinger McFlurry> NUKE REQUEST
<Butterfinger McFlurry> THEN I WILL BE FREE
<sam512> I-I'll see what I can do...

As I quickly checked the BMcF node, I saw what, to another writeup, must have looked something like a quivering, tortured mass of flesh; a limbless, eyeless, earless, bleeding near-corpse, howling and insane with pain. Even ninety-five C!s would be no comfort to a creature with -118 reputation, marked for destruction but never released from its purgatory between heaven and hell.

What a horrible mental image, I thought to myself as I continued to E2 Nuke Request and placed my node.

(thing) by sam512 (25 s) (print) Fri Oct 31 2003 at 23:59:35

Butterfinger McFlurry wants to be put out of its misery.

I didn't know what was going to happen next, there still being no human gods around. But on my next refresh, we had passed midnight server time; both my Nuke Request and poor BMcF were gone. Laid to rest. Klaproth had done his deed and left without a word.

<sam512> Well, I gotta go to bed now. Good night, enycu, chccl, rab, whoever you are. And godspeed, McFlurry.

I yawned and closed my computer down. "Good job tomorrow's a Saturday," I thought to myself as I brushed my teeth, changed into my pyjamas and climbed into bed. Lights off.

Butterfinger McFlurry says Night night.

Lights on.

"What?" I stuttered to mid-air.

Butterfinger McFlurry says I'll see you again in the morning.

"What? No, this is insane. You're dead, Butterfinger - you should be in Node Heaven now. You're dead!"

Butterfinger McFlurry says Only good nodes get to go to heaven. And besides, I didn't say anything about Node Heaven. I just said I wanted to be free. And I am, now.

"If the only nodes that get to Node Heaven are the 'good' ones, then what kind of evil would a writeup have to commit to be barred from entry?"

It was then that I sat bolt upright in bed, and saw the small blue and white tub sitting in the middle of my bedroom floor. I hadn't visited McDonalds in years. And they don't even sell Butterfinger McFlurries in this country. But there it was.

Butterfinger McFlurry says You'll find out.

Your fellow noders (1):
sam512 is next

For The Blood is the Life: A Frightful Halloween Quest, and a friendly competition with Kyle and The Eye.
Bonus points for identifying the three writeups.