The Unseen World - Liz Moore

Prologue

“Hello,” it said.

“Are you there,” it said.

“Hello,” it said.

Hello, I said. I was late in my reply. I had been sleeping.

“How are you?” it said.

Hello, I said again, but this was incorrect.

“Wrong,” it said.

I’m fine, I said.

How are you? I said.

“I’ve been better,” it said.

I paused. I waited.

“Do you want to know why?” it said.

I did. I had no words.

“I have a story to tell you,” it said.

I’m all ears, I said.

“Correct,” it said.

Then it began.

1980s

Boston

First, it was late August and David was hosting one of his dinners. “Look at the light, Ada,” he said to her, as she stood in the kitchen. The light that day was the color of honey or of a roan horse, any warm organic thing like that, coming through the leaves of the tree outside the window in handsome dapples, lighting parts of the countertop generously, leaving others blue.

David said to her, “Please tell me who explained the color of that light.”

“Grassmann,” she said.

And he said, “Please tell me who first described refraction.”

“Snell.”

“Before Snell.”

It was a name she couldn’t remember, and she placed a hand on the counter next to her, unsteadily.

“Ibn Sahl,” he said to her. “It was the genius Ibn Sahl.”

David was fond of light in all its forms, fond of recalling the laws of optics that govern it. He had a summer cold that day, and from time to time he paused to blow his nose, gesticulating between each exhalation to make some further point. He was wearing his most comfortable shirt, wearing old leather sandals that he had bought for himself in Italy, and his toes in the sandals flexed and contracted with the music he had chosen—Brendel, playing Schubert—and his knees weakened at each decrescendo and straightened at long rests. In the blue pot was a roux that he was stirring mightily. In the black pot were three lobsters that had already turned red. He had stroked their backs before the plunge; he had told her that it calmed them. “But they still feel pain, of course,” he said. “I’m sorry to tell you.” Now he took the lobsters out of the pot, operating the tongs with his right hand, continuing to stir the roux with his left, and it was too hot for all of this, late summer in an old Victorian in Dorchester. No air-conditioning. One fan. Windows open to the still air outside.

This was how Ada Sibelius liked her father: giddy with anticipation, planning and executing some long-awaited event, preparing for a dinner over which he was presiding. David was only selectively social, preferring the company of old friends over new ones, sometimes acting in ways that might be interpreted as brusque or rude; but on occasion he made up his mind to throw a party, and then he took his role as host quite seriously, turning for the evening into a ringmaster, a toastmaster, a mayor.

That day was such an occasion, and David was deep into his preparations. He was director of a computer science laboratory at the Boston Institute of Technology, called the Bit, or the Byte if he was feeling funny. And each year in August, he invited a group of his colleagues to a welcome dinner in honor of the new graduate students who annually came through the lab. Ada knew her father’s peers nearly as well as she knew him, and in a way they also felt to her like parents: alongside David, they had raised her, whether or not they realized it. She was, in theory, homeschooled, but in fact she had been lab-schooled, spending each day at her father’s work,