Bering Strait, Alaska
Rake Ozenna eased the throttle of his fourteen-foot aluminum fishing dinghy and scanned the dense fog that slid fast across the still water. Visibility shifted, sometimes down to a hundred feet or less, sometimes clear to show dark granite rock protruding from the treeless wind-battered landscape of Big Diomede, an island the Russians called Ratmanova. It covered eleven square miles and rose fifteen hundred feet from the sea. No civilians lived there. This was Russia's easternmost military base and along its ridge stood a line of military watch posts facing America.
Behind Rake was Little Diomede, three square miles and as high as the Empire State Building, the smaller, pyramid-shaped island where he had been born and raised, his home community of fewer than a hundred souls.
Rake listened for the sound of an outboard motor, careful to keep his own dinghy inside American waters. Technically, he was on leave after a Syria deployment. But because of where he lived, and his familiarity with the environment, he had been asked to handle a speed-boat crossing from Russia. The boat should be leaving from the small helicopter base around the western side of Big Diomede, taking only minutes to reach the American border. His instructions were to guide the power boat to the other side of Little Diomede, where a bigger vessel, a disguised trawler, would take its occupants on board. He did not know who they were or how many. Rake had been told the crossing was part of a joint US-Russian intelligence-gathering exercise of which the base commander was completely aware.
The border was closed and unmarked. There were no national flags on either island, no buoys in the water, nothing to indicate that this was the frontier between two antagonistic world powers. There was no government security of any kind on Little Diomede, no police, no military, no US Customs and Border people. Border defense against air and sea threats was run by the North American Aerospace Defense Command out of the Elmendorf-Richardson base outside of the Alaskan city of age, 650 miles to the southeast.
The Diomedes were two dots in the many remote island clusters that ran down from the Arctic into the Pacific Ocean. Since 1867, when the United States bought Alaska from Russia, there had been an understanding that Moscow and Washington should keep this border quiet. Direct confrontation should be unthinkable. The region was too sparsely populated for war, the environment too hostile, and military supply lines would be a nightmare. Far better to settle differences in proxy conflicts elsewhere. During the Cold War, the border had been referred to as the Ice Curtain. Apart from a few tense days some years earlier, when a rogue Russian commander had tried to take the American island, the understanding had held well.
There was the occasional splash of water against the side of the dinghy. Sunlight splayed through the fog. With him was Mikki Wekstatt, whom Rake saw as an older brother. As often happened in remote parts of Alaska, babies were born, families broke up and parents vanished. Both Rake and Mikki had been abandoned by their parents and raised by a couple on the island. Mikki, ten years older, had convinced Rake to join the army, first the Alaska National Guard and from there a series of secondments to special forces units, mainly to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Mikki got out tackle. If they had a three-hour wait, they might as well do some fishing. Mikki was tall, slim and wide-shouldered, and a decorated army marksman. He had stayed sergeant, while Rake had broken through to officer class. Now Mikki was a detective with the Alaska State Troopers and trying to persuade Rake to quit the military and join him. Mikki wanted Rake home, where he belonged, leading their tiny community. There was talk of the government shutting down Little Diomede and moving people out as they had done on the Russian side. Rake and Mikki were the new tribal leaders. They had to keep the community alive. Rake listened but wasn't convinced. Sure, he wanted one foot in his community, but he also wanted the outside world, which was why he had brought a longtime on-again off-again girlfriend back to the island with him.
Carrie Walker and Rake had once been engaged to be married That was five years ago and it hadn't worked out. As a trauma surgeon, Carrie worked war zones and they had met in Afghanistan. But, after that, they were barely together. Rake was constantly on deployment. Now, Carrie was trying to settle down at a big hospital in Washington, DC, but that was proving a challenge. She was too restless for an institution. She fought with management to get patients better treatment. A relationship with another doctor had hit the rocks. Rake had suggested Carrie join him for a week or so on Little Diomede, which had no doctor of its own. She was staying in Rake's house, a government-built stilted cabin on the island's hillside, in a separate room, which was fine with Rake who was decompressing from a tough three months in Syria. Over the past few days, she had been giving the islanders a free check-up. Carrie was the only woman he had been unable to shake from his mind. One time she had said she needed to know what he was feeling and what he wanted. Rake didn't have an answer. Those things had never been much part of his world.
Maybe she was that other world he wanted to keep. Maybe he did want to end up changing, becoming someone else. Didn't everyone? Maybe he and Carrie would end up in bed again. Maybe not.