Numbers crunched, advanced search engines engaged, scripts scrolling through terabytes of metadata, emails, tweets, and text messages. More data than any human could go through on their own in a lifetime, but easy enough for a group of servers to process over night; during the day hapless bipedal drones would scroll through the outputs, human intuition a complimentary nonlinear processing technique. Until mortal eyes gazed on it, the output of the mighty computers was impotent, sterile, mere letters and numbers.
Gwen's mortal eyes widened. "Oh fuck."
The United States intelligence community did have nice, new, airy buildings with great big windows and corporate cafeterias that would rival anything at Google. Gwen didn't live in one of those; her rat's-nest of old coffee cups, dying plants, and pictures of her cats was in one of the older buildings, a maze of cubicles squeezed into an immortal office building that had been re-structured so many times the interior might have been anything from a meatpacking plant to a museum when it first started life. Far easier to replan an office space than to get a building reclassified, and presumably Gwen's boss's bosses had their reasons.
Now she overturned mounds of old hardcopy, shifting through the piles of accumulated crap on her desk, discarding half-dry pens and ancient, dust-covered sweets until she seized her prize triumphantly: a slim deck of cards, the cover in 2002-era desert camo pattern and stenciled black letters proclaiming "Occult Identification Tarot." One chipped nail pulled open the tab and emptied the cards in her hands, setting aside the Major Arcana and began shuffling through the rest.
Five minutes later, Gwen knocked politely outside her boss's door. Mrs. Buell wasn't much higher up the government pay scale than Gwen, but as an administrator her cubicle rated at least that much, even if she rarely closed it.
"Boss," Gwen said, holding up the card. "I think we've found the Eight of Cups."
"Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti," Doctor Husayn began. The room was lit only by the projector, all eyes on the bright square of a power point slide on the far wall, a dead dictator in better days. Husayn was a subject-matter expert, with the scars to prove it; now he lectured on dead men at the head of the table, one hand on the keyboard.
"None of the member nations of the Allied Coalition ever found any definitive proof that Hussein was involved with the occult, but given the region everyone acknowledged the possibility. We know that after the failed assassination of General Qasim, Saddam escaped to Syria, and after that to Egypt where he lived for several years; we have very little intelligence of what he did there, but we have reports of an initiatory sect inside the Ba'athists, so either of those locations might have furnished material. Whatever the case, Saddam's Iraqi government was predominantly secular, but there is some evidence he had...something."
Click. The portrait replaced by a grainy photo of a mass grave. Something crouches over the bodies, staring at the camera, eyes glowing like a dog.
"We think the Israelis caught wind of it because of the Iran-Iraq War; they shared some concerns about proscribed techniques being used by elements of the mukhabarat as early as the late '60s, but apparently some journalist stumbled onto a group of ghūls exchanging something with a man in Iraqi uniform. The Israelis traced the package to Osirak, and that was part of the justification given before the Security Council for Operation Opera in '81."
Click. Flowing Arab script, photographed through glass.
"In 1997, Saddam commissioned the 'Blood Qur'an' - a copy of the sacred text scribed by hand, inked partially with blood he donated himself. Public announcements suggest he donated as many as 27 liters; the calligrapher who penned the book said the actual amount was closer to three pints. As you might imagine, this set off warning signs throughout the occult intelligence community; the Israelis think it was a direct challenge to the Iranians, especially after we shared with them Dr. Price's report on the horror in the genizah. Later evidence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq supported our conclusion that the Blood Qur'an project was the public cover for a parallel effort, and we informed Military Intelligence, who designated the hypothetical artifact the Eight of Cups."
"Doctor," Buell said. "What is our worst-case scenario?"
Husayn coughed and consulted his notes. "In a worst-case scenario, Saddam managed to synthesize a complete copy of the Kitab al-Azif of Abd al-Hazred; the copy may be partially or completely activated, but with Saddam's execution unbound and, as it has not surfaced, probably has not been sealed for over a decade. We're looking at the occult equivalent of an unexploded atomic bomb."
The nameless suit at the back of the room spoke.
The doctor scratched his beard. "If the seal's decayed sufficiently, even a child could call something with it. The chances of accidental exposure are most immediate but...yes, if you had someone that knew what they were doing."
"Thank you Doctor." Buell said. "Gwen?"
Gwen stood up slowly, smoothed her pants.
"The NSA has continued to monitor the known deep web networks and darknets looking for child porn, drugs, and terrorists; after they finish they pass the rest to us for our more specialized searches - spells over the internet, old Nazi gear, human remains, that kind of thing. This morning we got a hit on multiple search parameters, an anonymous dealer in illegal antiquities offering up an authentic copy of the Blood Qur'an, and someone trying to buy it with bullion coins - American Gold Dinars. We've put a request in to the NSA through channels for more information on the parties involved."
Buell silenced Gwen with a nod.
"Given the circumstances," Buell said to the man in the back of the room. "I'd like to request an immediate upgrade to operational status under ordnance disposal protocols."
The suit nodded. "I'll approve it. Do we have any idea where the Eight of Cups is?"
Gwen swallowed, voice wavering.
"The buyer gave a Virginia address." she said. "Not far from Langley."