Zhang Min’s bag groaned with books on American history, the fall of the Soviet Union, and declassified State Department documents. The Southern Michigan University library had a robust collection in those areas to support its School of Security and Intelligence Studies, and it fell to Zhang and her roommates to retrieve the books and scan their contents using the public high-resolution scanners throughout campus. At any given time, a complex rotation schedule meant that one girl was scanning, another retrieving, and another in class.

The girls shared a single unit in the Hopewell student ghetto; the lease was in the name of their live-in handler, Dr. Li Xiu Ying. Dr. Li was ostensibly a junior faculty member in the Southern Michigan University Department of Physics, but her scholarship was quietly provided for her from back home; she was a member of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department. The girls were there at her pleasure, their expenses paid for out of her purse, and she ran a tight ship by minimizing frivolous socializing and keeping a sharp watch on her girls.

Dr. Li’s main interest wasn’t classified information; far from it, in fact. Classified information was too easy to trace, too hard to acquire. An entirely separate branch of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department handled that, and they were welcome to it. No, Dr. Li’s raison d’etre was qingbao, information that was publicly and freely available. “People are cheap,” she was fond of saying, “and information is expensive.”

Zhang Min had once heard another girl ask Dr. Li why they were bothering to acquire such “useless” information. Li, as was her wont, had responded with a backhand and a lecture. “Every piece of information we acquire is a bullet in the chamber,” Li had snapped, “making our nation stronger. Only a fool lets others take stones from their property, for over time those same stones can be used to build a fortress against them.”

What Li had meant, as near as Zhang Min could tell, was that the information they were sending back by the terabyte was gone over by professionals, indexed and categorized. Anything of value was added to the PLA database, where it could be useful for everything from rooting out traitors at home to predicting enemy moves in the event of a conflict. One could do a lot worse, she supposed, than to have the same books on one’s shelf as one’s enemies.

And if, as in Li’s diatribe to the weeping girl on the floor, the information had been carelessly put out for the taking by the foolish Americans…well, wasn’t it the duty of every patriot to gather those stones up that they might be turned into fortresses?

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!