Chapter 14: The Dark Riders
...... In the observatory, Kip, Wolfgang and Paul waited for the sky to become acceptably dark. A deep red light illuminated the interior of the dome--a color that wouldn't affect their dark-adapted eyes. The wait would be long since in mid-September, a black sky didn't come until just about their bedtime. But in view of the fact that boys could sleep-in on Sundays, Dr. Ralph had given permission for them to stay up long into the night--until they themselves decided that they needed sleep.
...... Wolfgang keyed the control to open the dome shutter. A motor thrummed and, appearing as a deep blue void against the red, a thin slit gradually opened in the dome. The slit grew to a meter-wide gash and the motor stopped, leaving the observatory eerily quiet.
...... Wolfgang increased the monitor contrast, making the grey screen black. With permission, he'd replaced the telescope eyepiece with an image intensifier photomultiplier tube, the output of which was sent over a wireless link to a computer monitor. That way, all three boys could see the telescope's image.
...... "Can't we just observe now?" said Kip, whispering in the silence. "Even if we won't see everything, we'll still see something."
...... "Yeah," said Wolfgang. "I guess it's dark enough now. Anyway, with the moon almost full, the observing isn't going to be all that great." He peered up through the dome door to get his bearings. "Oh, almost straight up." He pointed. "That's Deneb, alpha Cygnae, head of the Northern Cross." He paused. "We could look at NGC7000, the North American Nebula. That's near Deneb."
...... He selected NGC 7000 in the telescope controller and, with the whirring of motors, the telescope slewed to point at the nebula. As the telescope moved, so did the dome--rotating so the slit was always in front of the lens. The scope stopped and a nebulosity appeared on the screen, looking roughly like the outline of North America. Some individual stars could be seen in the image.
...... "That"s it?" said Paul. "I thought it would be, well, like...more impressive."
...... Wolfgang looked hurt, as if he were personally responsible for the splendor of the cosmos. "Sorry." He paused. "Well, if you want impressive, I'll show you M13, the Hercules globular cluster. That is one of the truly great sights in astronomy." He keyed for M13 and the scope pointed to the northeast, about half way to the zenith.
...... "Wow!" said Kip. The screen showed what looked like a spherical aggregate of thousands of stars, increasing in density toward the center where it seemed to be a solid mass of whiteness.
...... "Yeah. That is impressive," said Paul.
...... "Okay," said Wolfgang, smiling sheepishly. "Now how 'bout we go from a lot of stars to just two--a really beautiful double. Epsilon Boötes." He keyed the control and the scope moved to a point low in the Northwest sky.
...... "Izar," said Paul.
...... "Excuse me?" said Wolfgang.
...... "The other name for Epsilon Boötes."
...... "Oh." Wolfgang looked away at the dome slit. "Hey what's that?"
...... "What's what?" said Kip.
...... "Down near the horizon. I thought I saw a flash of light." He pointed. "There it is again. Wonder what's going on."
...... "Can you point the telescope at it?" said Paul.
...... "I think so." Using the direction arrows on keypad controller, Wolfgang directed the telescope toward the horizon.
...... "Hey, look," said Kip, watching the computer screen. "There's something happening at the carousel."
...... A big tree in front of the carousel obscured much of the screen. But through its leaves, Kip saw tantalizing snatches of moving shadows.
...... "There're people there," said Paul, squinting at the indistinct movement on the monitor.
...... "Kids?" said Wolfgang.
...... "Don't know," said Kip. "Oh, my god. They've got spears."
...... "Come on," said Paul. "Look!"
...... Kip pointed to a small area of movement on the monitor.
...... "Yeah," said Paul after a few seconds. "It could be."
...... "Let's go outside and see," said Wolfgang.
...... "But what about the foxes?" said Kip, not entirely in jest.
...... "Don't be silly. They're shy animals." Wolfgang chuckled. "And the headmaster said they don't eat kids. Come on."
...... "I'm a city kid," said Kip. "The only time I saw a fox, it was in a cage, safely behind bars."
...... "They put foxes in jail where you come from?" said Paul.
...... Kip threw an annoyed look at Paul and then went on. "All right. Let's go out, if you want." Then he added, "But let's sneak up on them."
...... "Who? The foxes?" said Paul.
...... "Paul. Cut it out!" Kip turned to Wolfgang. "I don't exactly feel like just walking in on a mess of people holding spears."
...... "Fine," said Wolfgang. "Stealth is good."
...... The three left the observatory, and cut across the corner of the Dalambertian toward the carousel. Wolfgang held his red flashlight--the one he used to read star charts without hurting his night vision. But he didn't turn it on; the moon was bright and, by now, the three knew the terrain very well.
...... At the last point of cover among the bushes bounding the Dalambertian, Kip whispered, "Down!" The three dropped to the grass and crawled single-file toward the carousel, Paul in the lead.
...... At the edge of the clearing surrounding the carousel, Paul signaled a halt. Kip and Wolfgang slithered level to Paul, and the three peeked out from the concealment of the bushes.
...... Kip saw three boys standing side-by-side on the deck of the carousel. A fourth boy stood on the grass looking up at them.
...... On the deck, the kid in the center held a sheet of paper while the boys on either side each held two spears. Each spear had a little flag on it.
...... "Those aren't spears," whispered Paul. "They're from the golf course."
...... "They look great, though," whispered Kip.
...... Two flashlights sat on the deck, turned on and pointing up. The light reflected off the horses and bounced to the carousel ceiling, providing a soft eerie illumination.
...... "I promise to do my duty to Zeus, god of the sky, and to the Dark Riders," said the boy in the center.
...... "That's Alex, isn't it?" whispered Wolfgang.
...... "Yeah," whispered Kip.
...... The boy on the ground repeated what Alex had recited, and then Alex continued, "To defend the defenseless, to help the helpless, to shine the light of Zeus on those with dark souls,"
...... The boy on the ground repeated it.
...... "Sounds sort of like the Cub Scout oath," Paul whispered.
...... "And," Alex went on, "to maintain the honor of myself, my horse, and my fellow knights."
...... After the boy repeated that as well, Alex took a spear from the boy on his left and passed it to the boy on the ground. The spear's flag displayed the number four.
...... Alex took a spear from the boy on his right. The flag was numbered one. All the boys now carried spears. Alex raised his spear ceremoniously. "Roger Carpenter, I now declare you the fourth knight of the Dark Riders of Zeus with all the rights, duties, and privileges thereunto pertaining." He then leaned down and handed Roger the sheet he was holding. Kip could see it was a picture of some sort, but he couldn't make out any details.
...... "Come up now sir knight and chose your horse," said Alex.
...... Roger stepped onto the deck and laid the sheet he carried next to two others. Then, as the four boys were busy evaluating wooden horseflesh, Paul scrambled to his feet. "Let's see what this is about."
...... As Kip and Wolfgang crawled from the bushes and scrambled to their feet, Alex looked their way. He froze with an expression that might have been surprise or embarrassment.
...... "Hi, Alex," said Kip.
...... "Oh. Kip, it's you," Alex stammered. "I didn't recognize you in the dark." He threw a glance to the other kids with him by the carousel. "We were having a...a club meeting."
...... "What club?" said Wolfgang.
...... Alex clutched his spear. "We're the Knights of the Dark Riders of Zeus. We defend...."--Alex seemed self-conscious--"We defend the carousel."
...... "This looks reeeally cool!" said Kip.
...... Alex brightened. He explained the idea of the Dark Riders, then picked up one of the sheets of paper from the deck and showed it to Kip. On it was a horizontal thunderbolt, exquisitely drawn, under which were the words, Roger Carpenter, Fourth Knight of the Dark Riders of Zeus in Old English lettering. It looked like something you'd see framed and mounted in a place of honor next to diplomas and awards. Kip wanted one.
...... "That's Roger," said Alex, pointing to the kid holding spear number four. Kip said hi. Then all the kids introduced themselves: Alex, Woodchuck, Roger, and Kevin on one side, and Kip, Paul, and Wolfgang on the other.
...... "Are you guys all like from the same dorm-row?" asked Paul.
...... "Yeah," said Woodchuck. "3E."
...... "And you were all able to sneak out of the dorm without anyone noticing?"
...... "Yup."Woodchuck laughed. "If Todd wakes up and looks around, will he ever be in for a big surprise. Only him and Martin are in the dorm-row now."
...... "Can I join the Dark Riders?" said Kip.
...... "Me, too," said Paul.
...... "I'd like to join, also," said Wolfgang.
...... "Well," said Alex, tentatively, "we're supposed to vote on new members." He glanced quickly at the other spear carriers. "So wait here while we talk about it." He gathered the other Riders and went to the other side of the carousel.
...... "I think this is great!" said Kip when the others had gone. "Sneaking out after lights out, secret ceremonies, the carousel in the dark, knights with lances."
...... "In the dark," said Paul, "the carousel looks really eerie."
...... Wolfgang seemed diffident. "It does look like fun," he said, "but it does seem a little...childish."
...... "No, it isn't," said Kip. "A friend of mine from my old school. His father's a Mason. They run around with swords, and have secret handshakes, and do all sorts of cool stuff."
...... Wolfgang nodded. He seemed relieved, having been assured he wasn't about to act like a little kid.
...... A minute or two later, Alex and the others returned. The memberships had been approved and everyone went off to the golf course to snag three more spears.
...... Then, back at the carousel, Kip and company, in solemn ritual, promised to do their duty to Zeus.
...... "Okay, sir knights," said Alex. "Now go and chose your horses." As Kip and co. leapt onto the deck, Alex added, "I'll have your thunderbolt certificates ready tomorrow morning."
...... "It's too bad we can't turn on the carousel," said Roger. "That would be fun."
...... Kevin nodded toward the locked control box. "We could operate the carousel if we could figure out the combination."
...... Kip looked down from his just chosen horse. "Wolfy could open it." He was sure Wolfgang had memorized the combination when Dr. Ralph opened it.
...... Roger glanced at the control box. "Fat chance!"
...... "Could you open it?" said Woodchuck.
...... "If I wanted to," said Wolfgang, his hand casually resting on a saddle.
...... "Why wouldn't you want to?" said Roger. "We're defenders of the carousel. And that makes us in loco parentis."
...... "In what?" said Wolfgang, wrinkling his nose.
...... "In loco parentis," said Roger. "It means we're in charge."
...... "Like, what are you talking about?" said Paul.
...... "I heard my dad say it," said Roger. "He's a lawyer in children's court. Mom took me to the visitor's gallery once to see him work."
...... "It's true," said Kevin. "His father is a lawyer. So it's okay for you to open the lock." He paused. "If you can," he added in a voice filled with challenge.
...... "Please," said Woodchuck, imploringly. "It'll be a lot of fun riding in the dark. And it won't hurt anything."
...... Everyone worked to convince Wolfgang.
...... "Yeah, okay," said Wolfgang, at length. He shrugged. "Since we're in loco parentis and all that." He went to the control cabinet, pulled out his red-beam flashlight, and went to work on the combination. He positioned himself so no one could see what he was doing.
...... After a scant fifteen seconds, there came a click and Wolfgang pulled open the door. He turned around to face the kids with the look of a magician who'd just pulled a rabbit from a hat. "Courtesy of Sir Wolfgang of CERN."
...... "Hey. He really did it, said Roger."
...... "Can you operate the carousel?" said Kevin.
...... "Sure." Wolfgang turned back to the panel. "I'll have to make sure the sound and lights are off." He peered at the controls. "There's a timer knob. Looks like a standard ride is three and a half minutes." Wolfgang took the key from its hook, inserted it into the panel and turned it. Indicator lights came on. Then he threw some switches. "Okay," he said. "Get on and I'll start it moving."
...... While Wolfgang stood waiting, the other six boys jumped to the carousel and mounted their horses. Two of them swept up their flashlights off the deck as they went.
...... Wolfgang turned the timer knob.
...... With the motor's soft sound, like a gentle breeze, the carousel started to move and then quickly gained speed. The boys were silent as they rode their horses in the moonlight. A kid with a flashlight pointed it outward and a shaft of light swept the darkness like the beam from a lighthouse.
...... Wolfgang sprinted to the carousel, jumped onto the deck and swung onto his horse.
...... Kip, on the horse ahead, looked over his shoulder. "Fun, Wolfy. Isn't it?"
...... "You know," said Wolfgang, "it actually is."
...... When the ride ended, Wolfgang jumped to the deck and then to the ground. "Want another ride?"
...... The boys yelled yes at a loud whisper.
...... Wolfgang loped around to the control cabinet, brought his hand to the timer--and then froze.
...... What's the matter, said Paul from astride his horse.
...... "Someone's coming!"
...... While the knights hurriedly dismounted, Wolfgang turned the carousel off, returned the key to its hook, and snapped closed the cabinet.
...... Just then two boys broke through the brush
...... Seemingly by reflex, a boy with a flashlight shined the beam on the two intruders.
...... "Todd and Martin," said Woodchuck under his breath.
...... Kip, seeing Alex's spear waver looked over at his friend. Alex looked nervous, maybe even scared.
...... Roger took a step forward. "Hi, Todd." He threw a quick glance to the others, as if for moral support. "We were just--"
...... "We saw you," said Todd in a tone of accusation. "We saw you riding the carousel. I don't think you're s'posed to be doing that."
...... "It's okay," said Woodchuck. "We're in loco parentis." He went on to describe the Dark Riders of Zeus.
...... "I want to join," said Todd, abruptly.
...... "Me, too," said Martin.
...... "Well," said Alex, "we're supposed to vote on new members."
...... Martin laughed. "Okay. What are you waiting for? Vote us in."
...... Todd gave a smile that turned into a leer. "I'm sure you're not supposed to be out here. And it might be dangerous if anyone who wasn't a member knew about it." He pulled Martin away. "Come on. Let 'em vote." He and Martin stood just outside the carousel clearing, glowering at the Dark Riders.
...... Alex looked down at the ground. "We'd better let them in." He spoke in a tone of resignation. "If we don't, then for me, it'll just be more pink belly and nuggies and wedgies and Indian rope burns."
...... "I don't know," said Kip. "They'll ruin the club."
...... "But at least they'll keep it secret," said Roger. "I think we'd better let them in."
...... The other boys agreed, but showed a similar lack of enthusiasm. They called Todd and Martin, and told them they'd been admitted as the Eighth and Ninth Knights of the Dark Riders of Zeus. Alex said he'd have their certificates by Sunday noon, and then suggested they go to the golf course to get their spears, the only two remaining on the course.
...... Todd and Martin went, and came back brandishing their spears. But instead of showing any gratitude, they marched up to Alex and Todd said, "I'm a prefect. I should be the leader."
...... Martin added. "Todd wants to be called the High Lord of the Dark Riders."
...... "No way!" said Alex.
...... "You'd better get used to the idea of me being the leader," said Todd, his face up close to Alex's.
...... They glowered at each other for a few moments. Then Roger came up and pointed to the edge of the clearing. "Why don't you go back over there while we talk about it?"
...... "There's nothing to talk about," said Todd.
...... "Well, we need to decide if there's nothing to talk about."
...... "Yeah, fine. Do that." With an air of superiority, Todd and Martin stalked away and, as they'd done before, glared back at the riders.
...... "The Dark Riders was Alex's idea," Woodchuck whispered. "He should be the leader."
...... The others agreed, but Alex said, "Todd could cause a lot of trouble for us." He paused. "And he'll bully me even more in the dorm."
...... "You want to make him leader?" said Roger.
...... "No." Again, Alex paused. "I hate it, but maybe we have to. Anyway, I don't really like to lead things and boss people around."
...... "That's why you should be leader," said Wolfgang.
...... "I have an idea," said Kip. "Why don't we just pretend to make him leader." He felt he had to laugh so he turned so that Todd and Martin wouldn't see. "We can tell him we've made him Big Chief High Lord of the Dark Riders, or something. But that's just words. Todd won't be the real leader of the Dark Riders. He'll just think he is."
...... "But what if Todd orders us to do something?" said Kevin.
...... "Well, if it's something we wanted to do anyway," said Kip, "then we'll do it. Otherwise, we won't."
...... "We can try it," said Roger. "If it doesn't work, we can always vote him ex-leader."
...... The other boys agreed--and voted.
...... Kip turned to Alex. "You're the real leader. What do you want us to call you?"
...... Alex thought for a moment. "How about Secret Master of the Knights of the Dark Riders of Zeus?"
...... "Master?" said Woodchuck. "Like a teacher?"
...... "I didn't think of that. No." Alex reconsidered. "Okay. I'll be the Invisible Knight Commander of the Dark Riders of Zeus."
...... "Cool," said Kevin. "I like that."
...... "All right," said Kip, looking out where Todd and Martin waited. "Let's get it over with." He gestured for them to return.
...... Todd and Martin swaggered back. Todd accepted his title of High Lord as if it were his born right, and immediately ordered more carousel rides. Alex gave a hint of a nod and Wolfgang went to the control cabinet.
...... After a few more rides, Roger said he was starting to worry. It was really getting late and he knew they did a late night dorm inspection, and they could get into deep trouble.
...... Todd suddenly looked scared. He ordered the carousel turned off and Wolfgang went and restored the control panel to its previous state, returned the key to its hook, and closed the cabinet.
...... Todd, watching, asked how they'd opened the combination lock.
...... "Wolfgang did it," said Woodchuck, brightly. "He just went to the lock and a minute later, he'd figured out the combination."
...... Todd turned to Wolfgang. "Tell me the combination. Whisper it to me."
...... Wolfgang stood mute, as if weighing his options.
...... "I'm the High Lord," said Todd. "I should know the combination."
...... Still, Wolfgang kept his silence.
...... "Tell it to me," Todd insisted. "Now!"
...... They argued but Wolfgang held his ground.
...... Finally, Roger stepped in. "You know," he said, "maybe it's a good thing that only one person knows the combination. Otherwise, if one of the masters found kids running the carousel, we could all be in big trouble."
...... After a few seconds of silence, Martin said, "Roger's right. We really could get into trouble."
...... "Yeah." Todd smiled. "If a master found any kids riding, only Wolfgang would be to blame." He turned abruptly away.
...... "Hey!" said Woodchuck. "Let's make Wolfgang the Stable Master of the Dark Riders."
...... The kids laughed--except for Todd and Martin.
...... Todd faced Alex and held out his spear. "I'm going back to the dorm. Take my spear back to the golf course."
...... Martin held out his as well. "Take mine back, too."
...... With a shrug, Alex took the spears.
...... "Okay," said Todd to all. "I'm calling the next meeting of the Dark Riders for next Saturday night--and every Saturday night."
...... No one objected.
...... Todd and Martin headed toward their dorm while Alex and the others went off to the golf course.
...... "I'm just as happy that Todd's not with us now," said Kip when Todd and Martin had gone. "It's not fun with them around."
...... Alex nodded. "I'll have to figure a way of calling a meeting without them knowing about it."
...... "I know Todd's not the real leader," said Roger, "but it makes me really mad that he thinks he is."
...... The boys returned their spears then headed back to their dorms by way of the carousel. As they neared the carousel, Alex, in the lead, held up his hand. "I hear something."
...... Kip heard it is well--not the light step of kids, but the firm confident steps of an adult, a master probably.
...... The boys melted into the undergrowth and, low to the ground, scurried back to their dormitories.
...... Kip woke exhausted next morning. He was
tempted to sleep in, even if it meant skipping breakfast. But there was also
that horrible ethics course to contend with. And he wouldn't want to have to
sit through it hungry as well as bored.
...... Kip, as he went off to eat with Paul and Wolfgang, noticed that they seemed as tired as he was. In the refectory, they were even too wiped to rise to the taunts of APES from Todd and his ilk.
...... During the ethics hour, Kip struggled mightily to keep his eyes open and look as if he were listening. Consequently, he heard little of Brother Wakabyashi's talk. He tried to concentrate as Wakabyashi said 'Scientists must be especially attentive to ethical matters, babble, babble, babble'.
...... At the end, as Kip was leaving, Brother Wakabyashi stopped him. Kip worried that he might really be in for it. But instead, Wakabyashi gave a compliment. "I must say, Kip. You seemed so much more receptive this week than last. I am very pleased to see that." He gave Kip a friendly pat on the shoulder and sent him on his way.
...... That afternoon, still exhausted, Kip trudged
off to batting practice. How did I let myself be talked into this? He
wished he'd not let Paul talk him into being on the team. I hate baseball.
But Paul had buttered him up by saying that he was fast and had endurance because
he was a runner. Kip remembered back.
...... "You're a really good catcher," Paul had said. "I saw that while I was scouting at the carousel. And you'll be playing right field which means you really, like, don't have to know much about baseball."
...... "I'd rather go on not knowing anything about it."
...... Then Paul appealed to his sense of loyalty to his school and brought up the Amdexter kids calling them APES and said that all Americans should know how to play baseball.
...... "Come on."
...... "I mean it," Paul had said. "I really mean it."
...... After a lot more urging, Kip had given in. "Okay, okay, I'll be on the team."
...... As he neared the baseball diamond, Kip grimaced. Paul had conveniently forgotten to tell him he'd have to bat as well as field.