Copyright © 1982, 1985, 1989, 2008, 2023 by Roger M. Wilcox. All rights reserved.
(writing on this novelette began July 29, 1982)

chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4
chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8


Joshua Tree National Monument looked even more beautiful at night.

Jeff Boeing he eased up ever-so-slightly on his sedan's accelerator and took in the view. The twisted silhouettes of trees against the mountainous horizon, the unlimited stars whose brightest ranks could barely pierce the veil of light-pollution back in Los Angeles; it was all so majestic, so . . . calming. And he needed it. Back in L.A., he was vice president at a domestic violence shelter. "Vice president" was an almost laughable title — he was in charge of maybe three people, two of whom were part-time volunteers. There were plenty of battered women's shelters, but men were victims of domestic violence too, and he'd made sure the shelter stayed open for all. Every case was heartbreaking, and at times infuriating. (Why do you want to go back to such a dangerous household? What made you feel so drawn to someone so clearly abusive from the outset? Victimhood was always complicated.) The fact that the shelter was supported entirely by private donations that could evaporate at any moment wore heavily on everyone there. He was on this trip alone — a rare thing — to relax and forget about everyone but himself.

He couldn't have been more unprepared for its arrival.

A meteor-like object plummeted Earthward, burning its yellow-white trail through the star-specked vista. It screamed so close that Jeff instinctively jerked his foot off of the gas pedal. If it was a meteor, atmospheric friction must have worn it awfully small (and hot) by now. The object struck the ground and shook his car just meters away.

For only a split-second, he still thought it was a meteor; but he banished that idea when he saw the object bounce, like something living striking a soft bed of sand. Startled, he slammed on his brakes, waited impatiently as the car skidded to a halt, stumbled out, and rushed toward the impact site.

Even against the pounding of his car engine, Jeff heard a definite hissing as he approached the thing. When he reached it, the first thing he noticed was that the object — some type of body — was covered with moving, glowing streaks of light-energy, a possible source for the hissing sounds. Without even a thought, he asked, "Are you all right?"

And the second thing he noticed was that the body wasn't human. One of its six boneless arms still moved, the multitude of foot-long tentacles at its end slithering in calmed waves.

Then it stopped. The arm fell silently to the creature's side, and the flowing patterns of light on its body ebbed and vanished. A box clamped to the middle of its body, which Jeff just noticed, was now being pushed up by the eight metal fingers that used to hold it in place.

"This has to be some perverted dream," Jeff said to himself. He reached out his hand and felt the body of the creature carefully. It was definitely there, and was still warm, despite the aura of death surrounding it. "No," he realized, "I'm not dreaming."

Along with the box, Jeff noticed the alien was wearing a loaded belt (around what was presumably its waist) containing two removable items. One of the items was a foot-long rod with a rectangular handle at one end; the other a disk with a grill on one side. It was obvious to him: the rod was its ray gun, and the disk was its walkie-talkie!

Well, maybe he had it backwards, or maybe those weren't what they were at all. But he was sure now that the alien creature he was marvelling over came from a technology at least as advanced as his own.

The box still intrigued him, especially since it bore a pale pink button and a small metal protector hood. But what was he thinking?! He had to do something with this alien; if this was the first contact between the human race and an extraterrestrial intelligence, he had to make someone stand up and take notice. This wasn't the most dramatic first contact he'd dreamed of, but it was the first contact, and that at least counted for something.

"This alien belongs to science," he told himself as he dragged it into his back seat, "But I kind of want to hold on to the devices. Well, maybe not the rod or the disk — I don't think I could fathom their purposes — but I like the box."

He slammed the doors shut, popped the parking brake, cranked the steering wheel, stamped down on the accelerator, and banked down the road in the direction he had come. Things like this, as far as he was concerned, took first consideration over vacationing in Joshua Tree. Soon, he was up to a good sixty-five miles per hour.

He'd been travelling toward Los Angeles for about half an hour by the time his curiosity toward the box became overwhelming. Deciding that he couldn't wait any longer, he pulled his car off to the roadside, switched on the interior lights, and took the box from the dead alien's body as it lay in the back seat. He put his finger under the hole in the bottom of the protruding hump, and felt the plastic smoothness of a touch-sensor panel on the underside of the little hood. Taking the risk, he pushed it; the box did nothing whatsoever.

"This is silly," he said to himself. "This overcautiousness is getting me nowhere. Even aliens have to have built-in safety features!"  Committedly, he positioned his finger above the pink button and stabbed down on it. For an instant, he heard a humming-hissing sound, like an electrical short, and glimpsed a faint shimmer beside each of the eight body clamps.  After the instant was over, the shimmer ceased along with the sound.

"Interesting," he winced as he tossed the box into the back seat and got going again. He was more afraid now than before. The box did something, and could probably do more than just hum and glow; it had popped off the alien when the light patterns around its body ceased. And being only about thirty by twenty centimeters, the box would easily fit atop his own chest. That was a concept he didn't care to think about.

Dawn had cut through the darkness by the time he reached downtown Los Angeles. There were cities closer to Joshua Tree National Monument, but there were far more people here. His eyes burnt from the long return trip, but his spirits brightened when he drove up to the police station. He wondered if anyone on the local force was trained to handle this type of situation.

He parked his car with all the grace of a nervous elephant, stepped out onto the sidewalk, and flung the dead alien over his right shoulder. Like David bringing home Goliath, he trodded up the station's front steps.

The people inside knew something was wrong as soon as he came through the front door. He looked like a cave man bringing in his prey, even though neither he nor the thing on his shoulder were dressed for the part. As all eyes riveted on Jeff Boeing and his seven-foot-high burden, he planted his feet and asked, "Gentlemen, would you mind telling me where I can report a dead alien?"

He let the body fall to the floor in time with a chorus of gasps. The dull thud that followed made Jeff wonder whether or not his last move had been all that well-chosen. Regardless, a man behind a desk broke the petrified mood by calling someone on the phone. Jeff had a feeling, though he couldn't tell, that the man was calling the proper authorities and not the little white wagon.

Tracer is continued in chapter 2.

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