It is not my way to accept a commission simply for the money, but for the amount Lady Tottering offered I was willing to make an exception. The madness that made her commission a railway to the Moon would surely pass once she realised its impossibility, and I could return to work on regular locomotives, a second town house paid for.
“It is absurd,” her Ladyship said when we first met, her eyes fixed on the night sky. “That man Fogg can travel to lands far beyond our view, yet none of us tries to reach what is right before our eyes.”
Having explained the challenges of the endeavour, and discovered her still intent upon it, I set to work.
There was no shortage of money or manpower available to me, and yet my plans faltered at every turn.
I built a ramp miles long, incredible in its lightness and strength, to get us into the air above Surrey. Yet even this proved too heavy to sustain itself, and was repurposed for crossing the Thames estuary.
The first seven engine designs, each faster than any other in England, proved too cumbersome for the ascent. Each in turn was relegated to the London to Edinburgh run.
No matter how I refined it, I could not make fuel efficient enough for such a long journey without stops.
At last the frustration became too much.
“It is madness!” I leapt up and down on my top hat, venting like a burst valve. “How can I work at that which cannot be completed?”
Storming past the shocked navvies, I burst into the office and whipped off a short, sharp telegram.
“PROJECT IS MADNESS STOP CAN TAKE NO MORE STOP I RESIGN STOP.”
By the time Her Ladyship arrived from London, I had calmed down enough to regret my tone, though not my intent.
“We have a contract.” She glared at me as we stood on the steel walkway, looking down at the still-bustling works where my assistants were supervising the lasted experimental boiler.
“I have my pride,” I snapped.
“And what good will pride do if I sue you for breaching our agreement?” Her eyes were steely grey, arms folded across her chest. Though it was buried, I felt that she had an anger as great as my own. “I hired you because of your potential. Without it you are nothing to me. I will take back every penny I paid, and more. Your house. Your company. Your patents. I will take it all.”
The blood raced from my face, and I gripped the rail tight. I felt the horror of my situation, to have taken a job to secure a second fortune, only to lose my first.
“Please.” I gulped. “It is driving me insane. I am an engineer. I can take no joy in a project that never bears fruit.”
“That never…” Her voice softened, and she laughed. That callous sound sent a shudder up my spine. “My dear Mr Abernathy, your work here has born endless fruit.”
She took my arm and led me, bewildered, along the walkway. As she spoke she pointed at objects in the yard below.
“Your Moon-bound locomotives have halved the journey time to Scotland. Your lightened fuel has doubled their efficiency. Out estuary bridge is the talk of London.” She turned me to face her. “I am not a lunatic, Mr Abernathy. I dream of a train to the Moon, knowing it may never succeed. But the achievements that dream inspires, the steps we take toward an impossible goal, those we can take pride in. Those are the things that will last.”
I blinked, turning my gaze back toward the yard. I remembered all the things I had created here. One mad dream had spurred more inventions in that one year than in my whole illustrious career.
A smile crept up my face, and I turned to face her again.
“I have an idea,” I said, “for the most comfortable of passenger cars.”
* * *