Rough Rider

Michael Panush

The carcasses of the Undergoers began to stink as morning arrived, their strong exoskeletons rotting and chipping away to reveal purplish gray flesh and the thick mucous-like matter beneath. Add that to hot atmosphere that made up this particular corridor of the Hollow Earth and the stench was enough to make a weaker man come to his knees. It was early morning, or what passed for morning thousands of miles below the earth's surface, and that kind of smell was not what a commanding officer wanted his men to wake up to.

Even worse, several human corpses lay with the larger Undergoers. They had red coats, blue pants, and pith helmets, marking them as Her Majesty's Royal Infantry. They would have to be dealt with as well. Human bodies, especially bloated and rotten as these ones, couldn't help but lower morale.

"Get the ----ing flame-crews over here, and burn this goddamned ---- up!" Colonel Edgar Rice Burroughs shouted, stamping his booted foot straight through one of the carcasses. "I want my boys to have their noses filled with ----ing daises and roses, not this insect ----!" He turned back to the advancing infantry column and watched as orders were carried out. His platoon was a small one with a noble history, and Burroughs was damned proud to be apart of it.

His own steed, a loyal dark brown horse, was waiting for him, shifting its weight on the jagged volcanic rocks that made up the interior of the Hollow Earth. Burroughs had learned to ride as a boy on his brother's ranch in Idaho. As soon as the call went out for brave American boys to volunteer their services to their country, Burroughs had been the first to sign up. Although he had failed the entrance exam to West Point, the devoted young American signed up in the regular army, and after some service in the 7th Cavalry, he had requested a transfer to a special new volunteer cavalry unit. He had risen swiftly through the ranks, distinguishing himself with an almost beast-like fury in battle and soon found himself a colonel.

The flame crew arrived, their large gas filled backpacks sloshing around as they prepared themselves. Soon several streams of orange flame shot out, reducing the Undergoer carcasses to melted slag. Burroughs smiled approvingly.

"Getting rid of obstacles, colonel?"

Burroughs turned around and found himself staring at his commanding officer and second-in-command of the Rough Riders, Lieutenant Theodore Roosevelt. The distinctive moustache and pince-nez of the Lieutenant stood out in his khaki military uniform and broad brimmed hat.

"Sirs, yes, sir. These ----ing bugs smell bad enough alive. When they're dead and shot to pieces, it's like shoving your head up a dirty cow's --- and sniffing in." He chuckled. "Pardon my language, sir."

Roosevelt smiled. "I do always appreciate your gifted tongue. Tell me, did you ever consider becoming a writer of some sort?"

Burroughs nodded. "Actually sir, the thought has crossed my mind. But the United States Volunteer Cavalry is my life now and that's the end of it! Now, sir, you mind telling me what the hell we're doing out here in the godforsaken and Undergoer-infested Eastwick Tunnel?"

"It's the Brits." Roosevelt said the name of the major military power inside the Hollow Earth with obvious disdain. Since the discovery of Symmes Holes in the North and South Pole during the 1850's, England had been the largest sender of troops and funds to the tunnels. "One of General Gordon's units has become pinned down by a large number of Undergoers. Our job is to relieve some pressure on the damned Redcoats."

"Figures, ----ing Limeys can't look after themselves." Burroughs shook his head. "You'd think that after we get rid of the damned bugs we'd turn around and kick the Limeys out, eh?"

"By jingo, I agree with you!" Roosevelt reached off of his horse and gave Colonel Burroughs a pat on the back. "But for today, our Springfields and Martinis are in the same firing line. Now, get the men moving up. The Tunnel should be completely light soon, and I want us to reach the larger caverns of Eastwick before the afternoon." Roosevelt gave his horse a quick kick and rode back to the rear of the column with his staff and the supply wagons.

Burroughs watched him go, and then rode to the front, urging on the marching infantry. The Rough Riders, despite being a cavalry unit, had bad luck in procuring rides for any but the officers. "The World's Weary Walkers," they were often called.

"All right you lazy ----s! Let's get a move on!" Burroughs urged the troops forward, pleased to hear the sound of steady boots on the volcanic floor of the great tunnel. Strange luminous fungi growing from the walls, as well as pools of a shimmering red magma, provided plenty of light to the Hollow Earth, and the funguses tended to glow and turn dark to roughly the same timeframe that the sun rose and set. Scientists were still trying to figure out how exactly everything under the surface of the earth worked.

"Hey, colonel!" Private Frank C. Britco, a New Mexican recruit, asked. "Why we gotta be there so soon? I thought we're just rescuing some British ----suckers. Why not give them and the Undergoers a little more time together?" He chuckled, and some of the other Rough Riders smiled.

"Britco, you know how fast Undergoers can tunnel?"

"I do sir. They're fast as ----."

"Damn right. And you know how when there's one of those ----ers, more of them show up like flies to a corpse, don't you, private?"

Britco nodded, understanding the logic. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Now keep marching and shut the ---- up." Burroughs turned his horse back to the front of the column. A marching song started up from somewhere but Edgar Burroughs didn't care to join in. A big battle was up ahead, and the Rough Rider was determined to be prepared.

The Undergoers had shocked and terrified the human race when they were first discovered, sometime in the 1850's as the exploration of the Symmes Holes began. The expeditions set out by England, and then by France and Germany, found themselves torn apart by powerful insect-like creatures, massive beetles that utilized a strange variety of tactics and inhuman ferocity. It wasn't long before Lincoln, Lord Palmerston, Napoleon III, and Otto Von Bismark signed the Berlin Accords, united all humanity under the surface of the earth against the Undergoer threat.

General George B. McClellan, the first United States commander to truly bring the wrath of the Union against the Undergoers, had also been one of their first casualties. U.S. forces were still trying to recover his lower body for burial stateside. Robert E. Lee, McClellan's, successor, fared little better, but at least managed to keep his life and carve out a foothold for the U.S. in the Hollow Earth. General 'Black' Jack Pershing, the current major American commander in the Hollow Earth, appeared to be holding his own.

But it was a hard fight against the Undergoers. The heavy chitin skin, razor sharp claws and mandibles, as well as their sheer size and numbers, made the Undergoer Swarms a deadly fight. The fear that they could perhaps tunnel to the surface and lay waste to humanity on its own turf was one of the major rationalizations for their almost universally agreed-upon extermination.

The Undergoers were inhuman in every sense of the world. They knew no fear, no morale, and no mercy. The newsreels and papers stateside perfectly captured the ghastly remains of Undergoer victims. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why Burroughs joined.

As the Rough Riders marched down the wide bright tunnel to Eastwick, they found themselves with company. A large van with the insignia of a staring eyeball, drove on steel treads to ride next to the marching infantry. Colonel Burroughs quickly rode over to see who these reporters were.

He was pleasantly surprised to find that they had American accents, even if they were back east aristocracy. "Hello there, gentlemen," Burroughs said agreeably. One always had to be friendly to the press. "How may I help you?"

"William Randolph Hearst, Hearst Press," the youngish man inside was dressed in a rumpled suit with rolled up sleeves. Several other reporters, including one slowly turning the crank on a film camera, were also riding in the van. "Just trying to let the reader's at home know how brave the boys in the tunnels are. Mind us tagging along, Colonel?"

"Not at all," Burroughs said. "Just stay back when the ----cking bullets and bugs start flying, all right?"

"Oh, you don't have to tell me twice!" Hearst flashed a toothy grin. He was clean shaven and parted his hair in the middle. "Tell me, where exactly are you headed? We've scouted around this area, and perhaps I can direct you to an opportune spot."

"Eastwick Tunnel. We're supposed to take care of a swarm bothering the Limeys."

"Do you expect heavy action?" There was anticipation in Hearst's voice.

"Not too much."

"Hmmm." The reporter turned around and began to talk with the man holding the camera. "We're going to need more than that to outsell Pulitzer….Look, I know what I'm doing!…Damnit, you just give me the pictures, and I'll provide the war." Finally, Hearst turned back to Burroughs. "Tell me, may I talk with your commanding officer?"

Burroughs nodded. He whisteled for Roosevelt, and soon the Lietenant arrived. "I don't like the looks of these ----ing civilians, Lieutentant," Burroughs whispered to Roosevelt. "They're dumb as ---- and they stink twice as bad."

"Now, now, Burroughs, we owe a lot to our forth estate." Roosevelt smiled as he doffed his hat to Hearst. "What I can do for you reporters?"

"Well, I hear you're rescuing some British soldiers, is that correct?" Hearst folded his hands.

"It is. The limies need our help, by jingo, and it's common courtesy to rescue them."

"Well, it's just that we noticed a small settlement near here, and they were facing a very large swarm. Undergoers are probably going to overrun the place real soon, slaughter everyone inside." Hearst's hands stayed where they were, and his tone became serious. "Why, a bunch of tough American soldiers like yourselves could be their saviors. And I think a bunch of American women and kids are more important than a few Brits, don't you?"

Roosevelt scratched his chin. "How big is the swarm facing the settlement, and how far?"

"The swarm's not too big. Just enough so that the colony's own guns can't handle it. And it's not but a few miles out of your way." Hearst's hands reached out for a pen and paper and he began idly scribbling. "I'll take you right to it, if you want."

Burroughs coughed. "Sir, we really shouldn't interfere with the mission. You know how the brass would act. All those ----suckers would get their fancy uniforms into a twirl if they knew you were disobeying orders."

"But Burroughs, this news does change things a bit." Roosevelt scratched his moustache. "Normally, what's bully for the brass is bully for the rest of us, but I don't want to leave a bunch of women and kids to die before the insect hordes.

"And think of the glory," Hearst goaded Roosevelt on. "Think of all the medals you'd get for saving those people from their certain doom. I can guarantee I'll capture the whole thing on film."

That had done it. Roosevelt nodded. "Turn the column around, Colonel. We will not let fellow Americans, particularly civilians, die under the claws and spittle of insects! Get someone to send a telegram to headquarters and enlighten them as to the situation."

Burroughs considered arguing, but Roosevelt was a notoriously stubborn man. The Colonel nodded, and hastened to carry out the orders.

"This is the place!" Hearst said, pointing a wide valley in the center of a massive cavern. The ground was not completely barren, with a few stubby trees and a field of thin grass on the ground. "Settlement is right this way."

Burroughs stared at the expanse of open land. "Bull----. There's no colony here."

"What ever do you mean, Colonel?" Roosevelt asked. The Rough Riders were already marching down into the valley. "I'm sure its just concealed by some of those hills and such."

"No, sir." Burroughs pointed to one of the rocky outcroppings, sparkling in the fungal light. "That's ore sir, I'd recognize the rock anywhere. Any colony would have snapped that up immediately." He turned to Hearst. "What the ---- do you have to say for yourself."

Hearst laughed. "Well, I may have exaggerated things a little as to the population of this area, but when I passed here, I noticed the ore, and decided it would be an excellent place for a colony. Perhaps one operated by Hearst Industries. But first, the locals needs to be, ahem, removed."

The ground began to rumble and piles of dirt and rocks in the corners of the valley began to shift and bulge. Roosevelt's eyes widened as he realized what was happening. "Take cover by those rocks!" he shouted. "Get some trenches down and get the Maxims set up! We've got company!" He turned back to Hearst and shook his head. "I hope to hell you haven't damned my men, Mr. Hearst."

"Nonsense," Hearst said, directing his automobile down into the valley and hiding it behind the ore. "Once you get out of this alive you'll all be heroes. And I'll personally see to it that you get some of the ore. And think of all the papers I'll sell with the story and recording of this epic battle." He grinned.

The Rough Riders quickly prepared for war as the ground below them continued to shift. Springfield Rifles were placed to shoulders, Maxim Machine Guns were prepared, ammo belts looped through them, and the flame-throwers took their position at the front. The rocky outcropping made some decent cover, but it was in the center of the valley, and vulnerable to be surrounded.

A shrieking squeal, familiar to any soldier who had served in the Hollow Earth, heralded the arrival of the Undergoers. A large beetle-like creature, a warrior-class Undergoer, dug itself out of the sandy ground. It was about the size of a large horse or ox, with heavy chitin armor that was shiny and black like obsidian, glowing segmented eyes, and spike covered front legs, as well as razor sharp mandibles. More Undergoers joined it, all them squealing as they swiftly crawled towards the outcropping.

"---- you!" Burroughs shouted to Hearst, surprising everyone with his blunt rage. "We won't go down there and die for your ---ing story!"

"Shut the --- up and fight!" Hearst shot back. "I'm doing my goddamn duty just like anyone else! You think the ore here isn't gonna benefit the United States? You think the story about the Rough Riders succeeding against impossible odds isn't going to benefit the morale of the American public? You're a ----ing fool if you think anything otherwise." William Hearst smiled, showing all of his teeth. "Now go earn your pay, colonel."

With a quick string of curses, Edgar R. Burroughs raced to join his men. He drew his revolver, a beautifully made colt peacemaker, and also his officer's sword. The powerful steel had often been useful in fighting the melee-loving Undergoers. Burroughs shouted out the orders as the Undergoer swarm drew closer on all sides.

"Pick targets!" he shouted, leveling his revolver at an incoming Undergoer and closing one eye. "Prepare to fire!" He cocked the hammer on his revolver and the other Rough Riders worked the bolts on their Springfields. "Fire!"

The fusillade tore into the charging Undergoers. High-pitched insect squeals of pain raked the air as the Undergoers were toppled over by the wave of bullets. The high caliber dum-dum bullets that the Springfield fire could tear through the chitin armor. Gooey ichor sprayed out of the Undergoer's shells, and the first line of Undergoers went down. The second line crawled over their fallen comrades, oblivious to danger and death.

"Reload!" Burroughs shouted. He waited as the Rough Riders worked the bolts once more. "Fire at will! Kill the ----ing beasts!"

The crack of rifles and the squeals of dying Undergoers echoed through the valley. Another line of Undergoers went down, and then another, but the vast swarms continued to surge forward. Burroughs shook his head as he sought out Roosevelt. Simple mathematics would destroy them, unless they received reinforcements or some kind of support.

Theodore Roosevelt was at the opposite end of the outcropping, firing at the incoming Undergoers with both of his revolvers. Hearst's cameraman stood behind him, silently filming it all. Burroughs roughly elbowed him out of the way

"Sir! We're not going to be able to hold out!" Burroughs pointed to the vast swarm of Undergoers. "There's just too many of the ----ing bugs!"

Roosevelt sighed. "We still have the Maxims, Burroughs, and the rifle grenades. We can hold out."

"And so far they've only brought out warrior-class Undergoers against us," Burroughs shot back. "What happens if the Undergoers smarten up and Oh ----!" It was as if he had spoken too soon. He pointed upwards and spotted a group of flying Undergoers, glassy speedily-beating wings keeping them aloft.

"Incoming! Sparrow-class!" Roosevelt shouted, firing upwards with both of his revolvers. A Maxim clattered to life and one of the sparrow-class Undergoers fell to earth with holes punctured in its wings. The others zoomed down, stabbing their spear-like legs into the ranks of the Rough Riders. Men screamed in fear and pain as several Rough Riders fell bleeding into the ground. One unlucky soldier was carried aloft, screaming out his death-cry as the sparrow-class Undergoer flapped away.

A rain of smoking spores followed the sparrow-class's departure. Rough Riders coughed and gasped as they hastily put on gasmasks. Burroughs was soon staring out at the world through the bubbling eyeholes of his own gasmask.

"Very well, Burroughs," Roosevelt said, tightening his own mask. He kicked a green smoking spore out of the way. "Some Buffalo Soldiers were bringing up the rear. I'll ask for them to come and pull us out of this damned mess."

"Let's just hope they don't bump into a reporter," Burroughs said, shaking his head.

"Yes, well, as cruel as Hearst's statements were, I think he is right," Roosevelt gestured to the ore. "This is quite important to the war effort, perhaps more so than the lives of our soldiers."

"What?" Burroughs shook his head in disbelief. "Sir, this war is about much more than just ore! It's about the ----ing survival of the human race! If we don't wipe out the Undergoers, they'll pop up on the surface and wipe us out!"

"That is just a theory, Colonel Burroughs," Roosevelt muttered. "Perhaps the most popular, and the most used by politicians and newspapers to get votes and dollars, but perhaps if the Undergoers were left alone, they leave us alone." He looked at Burroughs. "Don't tell the men this, but I think that if there was no ores or precious metals down here, we wouldn't be fighting this war."

Burroughs nodded, gulping deeply. "Whatever you say, sir."

Their conversation was interrupted as the Maxim Machine Guns clattered to life. The Undergoers must be very close now. "Get back to your men, Colonel!" Roosevelt shouted, leaping back into the trench. "This is where the battle ends!"

Burroughs raced back to his trench. The Undergoers ranks parted, and several small, mantis-like Undergoers scampered forward. "Shrike-class!" Burroughs yelled. "Take cover!"

The Rough Riders ducked down and the shrike-class Undergoers lashed out with their arms, letting a number of small chitin spikes fly forward. Burroughs watched in horror as Private Britco caught a spike in the throat and went down. He gagged and pulled at the spiky protrusion in his neck, then toppled backwards and lay still.

Burroughs shook his head, firing with his revolver. One of the Shrike-class went down, a bullet hole draining yellowish goop appearing in its head. Could all of this death and violence be for a pointless cause? It was impossible, inconceivable that these young American boys would be dying not to spread justice and liberty to everywhere under the earth, but to increase the bank accounts of the diamond-ring wearing tycoons.

The flame-throwers roared to life, temporarily stopping the Undergoers in their tracks. The disgusting smell of burning flesh filled the air, and a few first-time Rough Riders retched silently. The Maxims continue to clatter away, and soon large numbers of Undergoer bodies stacked up.

But still they came, clambering over the rocks and approaching the hastily made trenches. Burroughs gulped. "Affix bayonets!" The long blades were quickly attatched to the ends of rifles. Burroughs drew out his own sword, staring at his reflection in the polished curved blade.

The Undergoers surged forward, and this time even the tongues of flame and the rapid-firing Maxims would not hold them back. They crashed into the trenches, and man and bug clashed in brutal battle. Rough Riders stabbed out, driving their bayonets into the vulnerable heads and fleshy eyes of the Undergoers, while the great beetles lashed out with their spiked legs, impaling soldiers or dealing them slashing blows. Burroughs saw a young man caught in the maw of an Undergoer, soon bitten clean in twain.

Burroughs yelled a wordless battle cry as he leapt into the fray. He fired with his revolver and then hacked at shiny black chitin with his cavalry sword. He decapitated a charging Undergoer, and then looked up only to see more bugs pouring in.

"Fall back!" he shouted. "Fall back to the rocks!"

One of the Maxim guns fell silent, and Burroughs knew the gunners had been overwhelmed. He walked backward, hacking off insect limbs with his sword until he found his back to the wall. Roosevelt was soon by his side, bleeding from a wound in his leg.

"Lieutenant! You've been hurt," Burroughs said.

"Ah, it's nothing." Theodore Roosevelt drew a revolver. "Not compared to what are boys are getting, anyway. Bully for them, I say. Bully for them."

With a great yelp, the Lieutenant ran forward, firing with his revolver. He managed to get fairly far in his made charge before a swipe from an Undergoer's leg shattered his skull. Roosevelt fell to the ground, his revolver falling from his hand.

Burroughs stared, numb to the horrors going on around him. He turned to the news van, and leapt inside, firing his revolver out of the door.

"Um, excuse me?" Burroughs turned around and found himself staring at William Rhandolph Hearst. The reporter was looking very nervous, and he was holding the camera, now covered in blood. "When is the rescue coming? I can't get this story done if you boys don't pull through and defeat the Undergoers."

Edgar Burroughs ran Hearst through, driving the blade of his cutlass right through the chest of the reporter. William Hearst coughed, staring at the sword jammed through his chest.

"Now, that...won't…sell," he whispered, before his eyes slowly closed.

Burroughs turned back to the van, hearing the pounding of insect legs outside. He closed his eyes and waited for the end.

"I say, old boy, are you all right?" The voice echoed from somewhere far away. Burroughs's eyes flickered open. He was lying on a cot on the rocky ground, dirt, blood and yellow ichor covering his body. He struggled to talk, and then a canteen of water was pushed into his mouth.

After he had drunk, Burroughs weakly sat up and looked around. He was sitting in the remains of a great battle. Piles of dead Undergoers, some destroyed with artillery fire and cannon shot, lay strewn about, as well as the bodies of men. Some of the men were Rough Riders, other had the black skin of Buffalo Soldiers, and several had the red coats and pith helmets of Royal Infantry. The man offering him the water was a young British soldier, clean-shaven and smiling.

"W-what happened?" Burroughs asked.

"You were the only survivor. Dashed good luck, I should say." The British soldier held out his hand. "My name is Corporal John Tolkien, Her Majesty's Royal Infantry. We got your distress call, and came to relieve you after we rescued our own. You Yanks blundered into one of the larger swarms out there."

"How d-did y-you-"

"How'd we win?" Tolkien laughed. "We had the old iron cavalry backing us up! Look at those beauties!" He pointed to a row of strange vehicles, covered in armor plating, treaded, and with mounted cannons and machine guns. "Tanks, the boys are calling them, perhaps cause the engineers thought they looked like water tanks when they were putting them together."

Burroughs stared at the strange machines. So this was the path warfare had taken. Cold impersonal steel machines fighting against mindless insect hordes. Perhaps that was all for the best.

"Don't exert yourself, old boy, just lie back and wait. We'll get you back the surface and taken care of," Tolkien smiled, pointing to the body-strewn landscape. "Real hell we've created for ourselves, eh? A regular wasteland. You'd almost expect there to be a big tower with a red-glowing eye at one end, you know what I mean?"

But Edgar Rice Burroughs was not listening.

Several months later and still limping, Edgar Rice Burroughs walked into a large building in downtown London. "International Anti-Imperialist Club-Meeting Today" the banner on top of the building said. Burroughs had entered just as the meeting was over, and found the two founders going over their notes.

"Damned good meeting, if you ask me," Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain as he was more widely known said. "We can fight that Yellow Journalism by letting the people know what this war in the Hollow Earth is really about, that's what I say!"

"Well spoken," Herbert George Wells, the other founder, agreed. "I just wish we had a little more information about what's going on down there. If its not propaganda then its simple lies and mistruths the governments put out."

Burroughs coughed and both Wells and Twain stared at him. "Hello, my name is Colonel Edgar Rice Burroughs." Burroughs held out his hands, remembering the sacrifice of Theodore Roosevelt, the heroism of his men, and the green for which they all had died. "I'd like to volunteer my services."

-The End-