With a hiss of steam, mechanisms inside the walls shot a steel beam across the door as Aaron slammed it and leapt away. Something struck the door from the other side with a deafening impact, and the surface of the steel door bent into an impression of knuckles twice the size of a man's.
Searching his coat pockets for a weapon, Aaron stumbled back into Joseph, who grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him.
"Lad," Joseph cried. "There's no way out!"
Aaron threw off the older man's hand and shoved past him onto the walkway.
"There's always a way."
But there wasn't. Barely visible through the currents of smog and falling ash, the walkway took a sharp, downward twist, ending in a tangle of rent braces. It was a gap of almost thirty feet to the other tower; in between, only hot, stinking wind and a hundred-story drop to the street below.
Joseph moved up beside him and wrapped his white-knuckled ham-fists around the bent rail. "Tell me ye've got some flying machine in them pockets of yours, lad," he said between clenched teeth.
Another impact cut the air as Aaron frantically dug through the many pockets of his greatcoat. His fingers closed over lenses, tools, dynamite, compasses, devices for measuring pressure and voltage, and a dozen other objects whose function he could not remember just then. Nothing that could provide a crossing. With a shock of realisation, he willed his hands still.
"It was here," he said. "I checked on it just an hour ago."
"Bugger all." Joseph slammed one fist down on the rail and looked up into the muddy sky. "A damn dog deserves better," he said. Then he bent forward and began to pray quietly.
Aaron struggled to control his suddenly rapid breath. "There's a way, Joseph. I just need to think."
"Not every problem falls to thinkin'" was the reply.
On the next impact, one of the bolt's fittings popped loose from the wall and the door fell open an entire inch.
"If it had been any other walkway..." Aaron looked to both sides, where similar walkways stretched between the two hulking buildings.
"Aye, but it isn't," Joseph said, drawing a heavy army revolver from his jacket pocket. "I think it's time ye made yer peace, lad. Let's make a fight of it."
"One cannot fight the Boiler Men," said Aaron, suppressing the chill in his stomach and wishing he hadn't sounded so certain.
"We'll see" was Joseph's reply.
Trembling, Aaron withdrew a tin box from one of his pockets. He unscrewed the lid and looked at the thin coiled strip of paper inside. Coded letters ran its length in small type.
A boot sheathed in iron slammed into the bottom corner of the door, folding it up like tin. Unblinking electric light spilled from the hole onto the walkway, mingling with the hazy glare from the towers above.
Aaron quickly screwed the lid back onto the box and wished he'd had the time to decode it. He withdrew a stick of dynamite and a pack of matches, conscious that the walkway was too small to escape the explosion when it came.
How many times had he been told that he must be ready to die for England?
How many times had he told others the same thing?
He readied a match and waited.
There must be a way...
The air shuddered as a blast of steam exploded through the hole in the door. It struck Joseph first and the Irishman's scream cut the night. As the white cloud crashed over him, Aaron threw his arms in front of his face. Too late: the steam swept over his hands and head, scorching every inch of exposed skin. The pain drove him to his knees. He crawled blindly towards the walk's edge, where he pitched his head over the end and took a laboured breath of the foul Whitechapel air, collapsing into a fit as the ashes and grit sanded his raw lungs.
He heard the door pop loose from its hinges with one final strike and felt it clatter to the walkway, and he realised they would never escape.
There's a way…
Aaron's eyes quivered open. He spotted Joseph's twitching form through the dissipating steam and dragged himself towards his friend. His raw fingers tore on the walk, a sting even more painful than the fire all over his skin.
Aaron grasped Joseph's sleeve. "There's a way!"
Joseph's eyes streamed tears as he cried and screamed. Aaron shoved the tin box into Joseph's hands and forcibly closed the old man's fingers around it.
"Aaron!" Joseph said. "I can't get up! I can't…"
Aaron shoved the tin closer to the man's chest.
"You can take it back," he choked out. "Find someone who can read it."
Without waiting for an answer, he planted his foot on Joseph's chest and shoved. The other man let out a yelp before rolling backwards off the walk and into space. In seconds, the grey of Whitechapel's smog swallowed him, though his muted scream echoed from the towers for some moments longer.
The pounding of iron-shod feet shook the air. Aaron stared down after his falling friend, crying freely.
You'd probably want me to die on my feet.
Aaron slung one arm over the bent railing and hauled himself up. He turned to the monstrous shapes silhouetted in the doorway's glow. The gaze of those cold, glass eyes made him shriveled and small, and he found he could not stop shaking.
He wished he'd chosen a different walkway. He wished he hadn't lost the matches. He wished he'd done a thousand things differently.
The Boiler Men reached for him with iron hands and he wished most of all that he wasn't about to die.