The Space Pirates of World War III

In the middle of the war, a mysterious ship approaches Tiangong-3 space station.

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Jun 30 2015, 1:24pm

Image: Sweetie187/Flickr

The United States, China, and Russia eye each other across a twenty-first century version of the Cold War, which suddenly heats up at sea, on land, in the air, in outer space, and in cyberspace. The fighting involves everything from stealthy robotic–drone strikes to old warships from the navy's "ghost fleet." Ultimately, victory will depend on blending the lessons of the past with the weapons of the future.

-summary of Ghost Fleet, a novel by P.W. Singer and August Cole


"Turn off the damn alarm," said Colonel Huan. "I can see them."

Chang saw him searching the shoulder pocket where his stim tabs had been before they'd run out. They'd just given the third warning to the space tourists, and again no response.

"Should I try Hainan control center again, Colonel?" said Chang. This was clearly a civilian target, and the shuttle belonged to a European nation that the Directorate had hundreds of billions in trade with. More important, that nation was a former ally of the United States that had so far stayed out of the war.

But that wasn't what was troubling him. Destroying satellites was one thing, but lasing a shuttle full of rich tourists was not the war he wanted to tell his son about.

Huan grunted his approval. The long-range communications appeared to be jammed, the transmissions digitally hopping across each of the frequencies they tried.

"It doesn't matter. We don't need Hainan's approval. The jamming only proves they are a threat," said Huan. "Proceed with station defense protocols. Set them to begin firing at two hundred kilometers."

"Wait, wait. I've got a transmission coming through," said Chang. "It's . . . music?"

He set the transmission to play on the station's speakers: first there were the strums of a single guitar, then a beating of drums, and then a gravelly voice singing in English.


Out of the blue came a kill-crazy crew,

Whose motto was stomp on the weak,

With bones in their hairs,

They were as hungry as bears,

And their leader was the King of the Freaks.

"What? What does that mean?" said Huan. For once he seemed to have no ready answers. Chang directed the computer to match the lyrics to all records of codes and transcripts, even military anthems, thinking it might be a unit's marching cadence.

The system's answer made the music even more confusing. There was nothing in the classified files, but an open-source search had found a match. It was a song performed by a twentieth-century musician called Alice Cooper.

"This is Directorate space station Tiangong calling unidentified spacecraft ordering immediate course correction to avoid our exclusion zone," said Chang. "You will be fired upon if you advance further. Answer to confirm receipt."

The order was met with more blaring rock-and-roll.

Death on their hips,

There was foam on their lips,

And behind them a shadow of blood,

They was Space Pirates.

The rock-and-roll song continued on to describe a sort of bizarre savagery that barely made any sense in the highly engineered confines of the space station.

"They can't even bother to turn off their awful music?" Huan said. "Now I am certain they are Americans. What an expensive way to commit suicide."

"They will cross into the exclusion zone in ten seconds," said Chang.

"Good," said Huan. "Then we won't have to listen to this racket for much longer."

Chang noted that Huan pressed down the red firing button almost a full second before the target crossed the imaginary line in space. Either the music had gotten to him or the bastard just couldn't wait to kill real people.

But then—nothing.

"Are the lasers functioning?" said Huan. "There's no damage."

"Sensors are properly tracking the target, showing a hit at the aim site," said Chang.

Huan pressed the red button again, jabbing it hard, as if the added pressure would make it work this time. Again, the target showed no damage. It was as if they'd never fired a shot. "Full systems reset. Now," Huan commanded.

"Target is decelerating," said Chang.

"I want to see it up close," said Huan, pointing toward what he thought was the space plane, although actually his finger was aimed at the station bulkhead. The virtual image of the targeting goggles did that to some people. They simply forgot where they were.

The screen shifted from the radar-targeting icon to a visual from the station's telescope. As it focused, Chang thought the shuttle was the shiniest thing he'd ever seen.

And behind them a shadow of blood,

They was Space Pirates

The song continued repeating. He'd lost track of how many times it had played.

"System rebooted. Back online." Huan fired again, and they saw a quick bright dazzle at the target point but no burn-through.

"It's got some kind of a reflective coating that's causing the laser energy to bounce off," said Chang.

"We'll see how many shots it can take as it gets closer," said Huan.

"Sir, the range is making it dangerous for us. The closer they get, the more likely that one of our shots will reflect back and hit us," said Chang.

Huan didn't answer, just pressed down on the red button; the laser fired once more. There was no effect, and the beam fortunately didn't angle back at them.

The plane began to decelerate and came to a stop three kilometers away. It fired its maneuvering jets, tiny bursts of flame, setting itself in a parallel orbit to the station, out of the laser's firing angle. As the shiny plane lazily rotated, the wings came into full view.

"What is that?" said Huan, though he recognized what he was seeing.

"A skull," said Chang. "And two bones crossed beneath it."

They was Space Pirates

Sack a galaxy just for fun.

Then the music stopped, and the station went silent. A voice with a strange accent came on, sort of a cross between an Indian's and a British noble's from one of those old shows Chang's wife loved, about the servants living below stairs in the manor.

"Tiangong, Tiangong. I have the pleasure to be Sir Aeric Cavendish, captain of the legally registered privateer Tallyho," said the voice. "And I demand your surrender."

Excerpted from Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole. Copyright © 2015 by P.W.Singer and August Cole. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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