The Rifleman

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As he prepared to charge to the front lines of the quickest, most devastating war humankind had ever known, Josh Cannon was hollowed out inside. He was trained to be hollowed out, just for the occasion. He would need to calculate, analyze, judge and execute in seconds, dozens of times. His decisions would save billions of people – and, if he had a good war, give his side the chance to kill a billion more.

Josh would be doing only figurative "charging." He and five other Riflemen sat comfortably before huge displays of maps, statistics, probabilities, and soon, external data from incoming "fire." There were another six just like his team in another part of the Western Hemisphere, and yet six more... somewhere. Where the teams were located was the most closely guarded secret there was in the run-up to the war. The East's weapons could, in a wink, melt out of existence areas the size of Lake Superior. The Riflemen teams would keep as much of that from happening as they reasonably could, as 18 men and women with an entire half a world to protect reasonably could. If the East knew where the Riflemen were, could target those locations, could wipe them all out – there would be nothing to stop them from annihilating the entire western hemisphere.

Josh's Riflemen were beneath one of the Galapagos Islands – Josh would confess to not remembering which one. Josh was confident the East didn't know where they were. He'd heard it third- or fourth-hand, but supposedly, based on the West's most recent intel, the East speculated that the Riflemen were in geosynchronous orbit. Or possibly on the moon.

Josh's brow creased some as it occurred to him that maybe one of the three teams of Riflemen was in orbit, or on the moon. And if the East was right about where that team was...

He shook his head to clear it. Troubled was not hollow. Doing armchair geopolitics was not hollow.

Josh's being troubled once the war started could cost millions of lives. If his post were assigned two incomings, one about to annihilate New York and one Buenos Aires, he would have to decide which of the cities to save, based on very quickly accumulating – and changing – data, the context, and his chance of success assuming all available options. Having saved one, he may then have an opportunity to save the other – but he couldn't count on it. More data would be accumulating. The context would be changing. His chance of success would drop toward zero.

Not a time when you wanted to be distracted.

Hollow. Dispassionate. He needed to make decisions based on data and analysis. Worrying over where the other Riflemen teams were, or whether they were sitting ducks underneath the Galapagos, could cost him fractions of seconds. Fractions of seconds were precious – Josh and the other Riflemen needed every single one they could get.

Even further out of the question: Worry over where his loved ones were – worry over where anything important to him in the outside world was. Most Riflemen didn't have family enough to worry about. Having family was a liability. Not that it was exclusionary – if a Marine would make an elite Rifleman, but he had a sister and brother-in-law and two adorable nieces in Ottawa and an elderly parent in Old Baja, the Corps wouldn't automatically disqualify him. They would work the problem. Our hypothetical sister and nieces and elderly parent would be relocated someplace, someplace secret from the East but even more secret from our hypothetical Rifleman. At the advent of the war, Sis could be in Vancouver and mom in Virginia – the Rifleman wouldn't have a clue.

There had been discussion of relocating all the Riflemen's loved ones to orbit or to the moon. But keeping elite Marine units a secret was one thing, and keeping dozens of civilians quiet about where they were going was another. Nobody needed to articulate the impact on the war if the East vaporized everything the Riflemen loved.

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