A balloonist in 1840s' London finds himself approaches by a baron with a strange secret, a secret that can only be revealed at high altitudes.
Steampunk note: the protagonist, a balloonist, is induced to ascend to greater and greater heights, at the whim of his patron. To assist his endeavours, he tinkers with steam-based technologies and other anachronisms: for example,
I had once had visions of becoming the George Stephenson of the skies by inventing the airborne train, and I spent all my money installing a purpose-built Cornish steam engine with small windmill blades beneath a hot air balloon. Alas, although it did drive the balloon in any direction on a calm day, in wind it was useless. As I found out, a balloon is effectively a huge sail, and the wind was more than a match for any steam engine small enough to be carried aloft.
The story also includes the building of a atmospheric pressure chamber and a 'voidship', to travel in space.