From the author: Happy Halloween, everyone! This story completes my spooky-themed pieces for the Halloween season. I've written a few ghost stories. Here the justice is most poetic. JVP
“Until now, vengeful ghosts have been documented in history but never seen by science,” said General Kilborne as he led the Secretary of Defense and joint chiefs of staff into the forward bunker. “The army has known about them for years. We’ve studied the types of persons and the mindset that produces a violent, motivated spirit. Today you will see our first field test of the technology.”
The Secretary of Defense, a large and solidly built man despite his age looked out the two-inch thick blast windows that revealed a stretch of desert, bookended by a line of trees on the left and the city on the right. Between them, several hundred yards of heat-baked sand without a hint of cover shimmered in the sun. Bullets and mortars scarred the buildings. Broken windows stared blackly onto the waste. He glanced at the men filling the room, a serious, dour crowd. The war had dragged on for years against what the press had dubbed the “perpetual insurgency,” an enemy that ambushed and booby-trapped and melted away in the face of superior force. Impossible to engage. Impossible to defeat.
Kilborne, in his startlingly clean uniform and medals and ribbon covered chest, took a position at the view port. “Today we will demonstrate how we’ll end this war.”
An undersecretary, a young man, said, “I read the release. Do you expect us to believe that not only are ghosts real, but that the army can create them on demand, and that they will fight for us?”
The general nodded. “Yes, inspired by revenge, the oldest of human emotions, our weaponized ghosts hunt down their killers. No walls protect them. No weapons preserve them. Anyone who dares to take American soldiers’ lives will face the tireless spirit of the dead.”
The undersecretary thumbed through his papers. “Your information said that the soldiers were hand-picked for the training and medical preparations necessary for them to transition to, um . . .” he looked for a reference among his pages, “ . . . post-corporeal status?”
“Our investigations into the technology shows that some soldiers are stronger candidates. Men with families, for example, or ones who are newly engaged, are particularly good. If I would have had my way, the soldiers for this demonstration would be only the ones who recently learned they were to be fathers for the first time.”
The Secretary of Defense said, “In other words, a man who has the most to live for is the best subject to become a vengeful spirit.”
“Yes. If you’ll look into the booklet the lieutenant gave you, you will find a picture and biography of the twenty American heroes who will be our pioneers to take us to peace.”
“Brilliant,” said the secretary.
The undersecretary’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “Wait, you plan to kill twenty soldiers right now, in front of us, as a proof of concept demonstration?”
The General checked his watch. “This is our Trinity, gentleman. You are about to witness a breakthrough in warfare as world-altering as the first nuclear detonation. Like the atomic bombs that brought Japan to its knees, I believe that our enemies, when they hear of what we do today, may very well put down their arms. What insurgent would fire at an American soldier if he knew that killing him would release an implacable vengeance? We will become their nightmares.”
A plume of dust rose from beyond the trees to the left. Visible through the pall, a handful of Humvees opened and spilled soldiers. The undersecretary checked the shell-damaged buildings to the right. They’d assumed an ominous watchfulness. He hadn’t actually seen anything move, but he sensed weapons behind each dark opening.
The soldiers emerged from the behind the trees, spread in loose formation, guns carried in the ready position, walking across the sand.
The undersecretary, a tinge of horror in his voice, said, “How do you know they will be attacked here?”
The General said, “We leaked intel to the other side.”
Now, the rest of the men crowded at the window. “It’s about time we had a clear win,” said one of them.
The soldiers drew farther and farther from their armored vehicles, heads high, alert, well trained.
“They don’t know they are going to die,” gasped the undersecretary.
“Of course not,” said the General. “For them to make the jump to the post-corporeal, they have to be on a mission. The men believe they are beginning an assignment that will save the country. They are fighting for their future, for the things they love. We must provide them with sufficient motivation and rage to continue on in death.”
The soldier nearest to a building stopped, dropped to his belly, gun pointed at a window. The other soldiers fell also. The bunker glass was too thick to hear their voices, but they were yelling. Several pounded at their weapons. None had fired.
Windows erupted in flame. Despite the insulation, the crackle of small arms penetrated. The soldiers writhed as bullets struck them. Several managed to get to their feet. They staggered toward the buildings, desperate fury on their faces, but they jerked and danced in a lead storm.
“This is where it gets interesting,” said the general.
Finally, gunfire quit. Heads appeared in the windows, exulting in the carnage. No movement among the dead at first. Then, a smoke appeared to rise from the bodies, a black haze that eddied to head-height. There was no wind, but the blackness drifted toward the buildings, gained momentum, splashed against the walls like a dark wave, and flowed through the openings.
Suddenly, more gunfire. A man dove from a window, rolled on the sand, and then sprinted away. Smoke followed him, engulfed him, tore him to pieces.
A couple of the Defense Department men cheered, but the undersecretary wanted to turn away.
The General said, “What our enemy has just discovered is that you can not stop the justice of the dead. You cannot negotiate or run. A ghost’s vengeance has no limits. Our ghosts will root out their killers and destroy them.”
Finally, the undersecretary closed his eyes. “You gave our men empty weapons?”
The General cleared his throat impatiently. “Of course. For the demonstration, they couldn’t win the battle. They had to die. You must admit, it is a potent display of the technology.”
The undersecretary looked onto the battlefield. Twenty soldiers lay crumpled in the desert. “You took everything from them.”
A movement from the buildings caught the undersecretary’s attention. Smoke poured from the windows and doors. It swirled, shifted about as if sniffing or searching.
“Those are our ghosts,” said the General. “Our beautiful, deadly, vengeful ghosts.”
The smoke paused in its uncertainty.
“Whose ghosts?” said the undersecretary.
Slowly at first, but then faster and with increasing purpose, the blackness rushed toward the bunker. The undersecretary wanted to speak, and he would have if the bunker’s cement and thick glass had been any barrier at all. He opened his mouth, but in the end all he could do was scream.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.