The Tourist

Edited by L. M. Davis

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

July 2022

958 words — Reading time: around 4 minutes

He goes to Earth alone.

He is prepared, near as one can be. He knows everything about human culture. Or, at least, everything that had ever been uploaded to their Cloud — all of the newspapers and the literature, the sonatas and the fan art, the documentaries and the YouTube tutorials, the sitcoms canceled after half a season and the pilots never picked up….

All of it was stored on a primitive quantum thumb drive and flung at their nearest neighboring star system, which just so happens to be his own, but the others are largely… indifferent. He is the only one among them who has fallen in love.

The journey is sixty Earth years and change, but he has those human minds to keep him company. The contents of the thumb drive are uploaded to the ship’s AI, and he spends the long hours of endless nowness mainlining romcoms and reading autobiographies of the saints.

He learns Swahili and German and Japanese to start, absorbs J-rock and K-pop and is disappointed to learn that SMAP disbanded in 2016. He stumbles across a manual on ham radio and goes about constructing one from the spare parts around the ship.

He reads in no particular order. He’d originally intended to chart his path chronologically, but he is surprised by the degree to which the archive is self-referential. A book of fiction invites curiosity about a scientific topic, which leads to treatises on human philosophy, which in turn beckon to biographies of civil rights leaders.

Halfway through his journey, it occurs to him that he ought to have a name by which his new friends can refer to him. He toys with the idea of “Major Tom” or “Grogu” but worries Bowie or the Star Wars franchise may no longer be in vogue. In the end, he chooses the name “Waitstill,” which is an old name from an old book. But he likes the pieces of it: wait and still. To wait in stillness. Or to be still waiting.

Gazing out the capsule window, he grows sick of stars. His soul sinks into melancholy, and he turns to the humans who have recorded their own experiences of isolation and periods of stasis. He is reading Yasunari Kawabata when the AI announces that his waiting is nearly over. Past the brilliance of the endless stars, the relentless heat of the gas giants, and the dullness of the dead rocks comes a living world of blues and greens.


The ship sinks into orbit, and he admires the planet for a few revolutions. Weather floats like cream across the surface, swirling in eddies and dispersing like smoke. He has seen photographs, of course, but nothing has prepared him — nothing could have prepared him — for the particular beauty of this particular day, the day of his arrival.

The AI informs him that, by Earth reckoning, today is June 22, 2122. The ship lands on a campground site in Smoky Mountain National Park. He hoists himself from the capsule — so good to stretch, after sixty Earth years crammed in a can! — and looks around. The blue pines stretch tall, much taller than he could have imagined, and the birdsong is every bit as sweet as the poetry promised.

But… he is alone. No vehicles herald human presence; no RVs or tents stand sentry. Even the water pumps have rusted over, and the paths are choked with grasses. He turns on the spot, nonplussed. He’d expected, based on all the alien invasion films, to have been greeted immediately, or at least threatened by their military.

Perhaps camping has fallen out of vogue. Or perhaps the authorities have closed the park, though there’s no weather to indicate the necessity and he cannot pick up any sort of signal on his radio. But still, the day is beautiful, and the mountains are lovely. Truly, the National Park website had not oversold this place.

He curls around an abandoned water pump and waits. As the light fades, the diurnal wildlife gives way to the nocturnal, and the sounds of insects stir the air. His mood darkens with the sky, and he doubts his mastery of human culture. Perhaps it is rude to greet someone on the day of their arrival?

But then — it begins as a single tiny flash, a momentary supernova. The explosions blink into being one by one, a gathering presence along the tree line. They pulse in great cloud-like galaxies, flickering first all together, and then slowly apart. As the world grows darker, more of them arise, until they saturate the darkness and the world is made of fireflies.

Their bioluminescence reminds him of the stars of deep space, if stars could dance. If stars could delight half so well as fireflies. (Human literature is quite devoted to admiration of the stars, which strikes him as a missed opportunity when all these centuries it could have been focused on the lightning bug.)

One lands on him, bright and poignant. He admires it for a moment before it flies off, and a little piece of his soul goes with it, to join its siblings in their dance.

He keeps watching as they sway into the grass and tree cubbies with their mates. The last firefly signals her goodnight, and the darkness descends again.

His own species do not sleep, but he finds himself in a kind of peaceful stasis as the owl and Chuck-will’s-widow begin their slow biding calls. Beside him, the ham radio is nothing but static.

In the morning, he is sure, his new friends will come. They will find an alien in a capsule ship, watching I Love Lucy reruns and dreaming of discussing his favorite episodes with them.

Still he waits.

© 2022 Em Liu

About the author

Em Liu

Em Liu grew up in Palm Beach, Florida, and has lived in the American Southwest, the Midwest, New England, and Japan. She now resides with her husband and new son in the greater Washington, DC, metro area, where she researches financial systems by day and devises magic systems by night. Her fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Daily Science Fiction, and others, and you can find her on Twitter as @EmLiuWriting. This is her first story for Fireside Magazine.