Dominic then joined a local creative writing class, run by the editor of the winning entry to the Walter Scott Prize for 2018. He has since produced over fifty short stories and four novels and is currently working on a Sci-Fi novella and a book-length novel of historical fiction.
A bank of dense, swirling fog enveloped the SMS Magdeburg as she inched towards the entrance of the Gulf of Finland. This close to the island of Odensholm, the only sounds on deck came from the leadsmen, muffled and uneasy, calling out the depth of water around the keel.
In the telegraph room, thick strands of mist seeped under the door, while Radio Officer Bender continued to tap out messages. Only the ship's mascot behind him seemed aware of impending danger.
The dog lifted his head, eyed his master and whined.
'Shh, Schuhmchen, I'm busy.'
The ship lurched and the transmission key fell silent. Officer Bender stared at the deck as his seat thrust him upwards. Schuhmchen gave a muffled yelp, and moments later, the wireless room rose again, accompanied by a metallic groan. Four more jolts were followed by a long silence.
The door to Bender's cubicle was wrenched open by the First Officer. 'Signal the Augsburg. Tell her we're grounded at 59 degrees 18 minutes north, 23 degrees 21 minutes east. Order V-26 to come and tow us off.'
Bender reached for the codebook.
'No, we don't have time. Broadcast in clear - then burn the blasted book.' The officer hurried away.
As Bender tapped out the instructions, the dog growled at raised voices beyond, hearing but not understanding the shouted orders to throw coal and munitions overboard. Senior officers yelled orders to lever the steel bulkhead doors from their hinges and jettison them over the rails. Shrieks of tortured metal echoed around the walls as sailors wrenched coaling gear from mounting points and dumped them into the sea. The engines thundered, driving the propellers forward and then into reverse. Despite all their efforts, they were not moving.
Through his headset, Officer Bender heard the leadsmen cry out.
'Sixteen feet to port bow, and nine to starboard.'
'Port stern, thirteen feet. Starboard stern seventeen feet.'
The keel drew twenty feet. He calculated they would not get rid of enough weight to float. Unless the torpedo boat could pull them off, they were stuck fast. He clamped the earphones against his ears, noting V-26's signal of its intention to manoeuvre into position.
'Stay Schuhmchen,' he commanded, grabbing the codebook as he rushed to the door. 'I'll be back, whatever happens.'
Outside, deck lights materialised like starbursts in the dense fog. Officers roared directions from the bridge lookouts. Men struggled to lift heavy iron rails, their grunts deadened by the mist. He caught sight of two ratings carrying codebooks similar to his. They threw them from the starboard rail, and he wondered who had made the order; in such shallow waters, there was a strong probability they could be located later and recovered.
He hoisted his codebook under his arm and found the companionway to the engine room. When he opened the hatchway, heat enveloped him and sweat popped on his exposed skin. He climbed down the ladder and sought out the chief engineer. They had rehearsed this procedure several times, so there was no need to talk above the clatter of the steam engines. The engineer unclipped the furnace hatch, and Bender hurled the tome inside as far as it would go. He saw the leather binder curl, waiting long enough to witness the paper burst into flames.
On deck, lights from V-26 emerged from the darkness. He heard the confirmation a line had been secured. But as the ship backed off, a crack like rifle-fire sounded, and the hull shuddered. The line had snapped.
A massive detonation from the direction of the bow threw him off his feet. He slid across the deck, coming to a sudden stop when his head met a rail stanchion. Seconds later, he regained consciousness to the sounds of thrashing engines and the cries of sailors. Over the uproar was the faint but familiar sound of a barking dog.
'Schuhmchen!' He pulled himself upright and used the railings to shuffle to the radio room. Schuhmchen jumped up, and he patted the dog's head, mumbling comforting noises. With his other hand he snatched a headphone to his ear. A weak ping over background static indicated another ship was operating nearby. Placing both headphones over his ears, he listened intently. There was a distant signal, and he picked up a pencil as the dots and dashes flashed across the airways. The reception strength increased as he noted the letters, signifying the source was approaching. When the message ended, he glanced down at the pad. Translated, the characters formed the familiar pattern of a Cyrillic alphabet. Russian!
'Helmut,' he roared.
A young rating arrived.
'Take this to the Captain immediately.'
He dashed off the note and handed it to the fresh-faced sailor.
Russian cruisers Pallada and Bogatyr approaching.
The boy turned and ran, forgetting to salute in the rush. The dog barked again, and Bender stroked his head. From the open doorway, officers were ordering the crew to abandon ship.
'Just have to warn V-26 and update the Augsburg,' Bender muttered. He grasped the telegraph key.
At that moment, officers bellowed warnings from every quarter. 'Fuses are lit!' Captain Habenicht had decided to scuttle.
Bender had only four and a half minutes to send his last message; the Morse key produced a continuous clatter, sounding like a machine gun in the small space. Two minutes afterwards, an explosion erupted from the forecastle and shrapnel pinged against the cabin walls. Either the Russian warships were closer than he imagined, or some of the scuttle charges had ignited prematurely.
Schuhmchen jumped to his feet, barking furiously. Bender hurried to the doorway. The crew were making for the port side and jumping into the water. A shell landed on the prow of the torpedo boat, blasting several men over the side. He watched as she pulled away, shocked by the force of the Russian shells and the realisation he was being abandoned by his own navy.
Through the maelstrom, one question strove to be answered. Then a shell hurtled into the Magdeburg's wardroom, and the blast forced him to put aside further thoughts. He scooped up the dog and raced to the port gunwale. Most of the men were already in the water. He could see splashes as they waded onto the muddy banks, fifty feet away. More shells landed, one striking the forecastle. A hail of metal fragments whizzed above him, and the deck plates jumped with the power of the detonation.
Still clutching Schuhmchen, he climbed over the rail and gasped in the chill water. As he swam for the shore, Schuhmchen's head bobbed beside him. With their safety assured, he recalled the question that had been bothering him. There were four copies of the codebook on the Magdeburg. He had incinerated one in the furnace. Two more were carried to the railings and thrown overboard.
Where was the fourth?