Part Ten

Maria watched as Max flipped through a magazine on his computer desk. He was stripped to the waist and unusually talkative. She eyed him in amusement, astounded at his utter disregard for his nudity. She'd become used to that over the last two weeks - Max was totally oblivious to the fact that he was beautiful and yet totally unashamed to walk around without clothes.

Though she was anxious to fulfill her mission, she knew that this was necessary in case she failed. She was here on preventative maintenance, covering her tracks in the event that she was unable to reverse the effects of the cone. Part of that task was making sure Max thought she was out of town with her mother. She'd knocked on his window, apologizing for breaking plans she had with him the next day.

"I thought Isabel was going to reach across the table and smack the shit out of Kyle," Max was saying when Maria tuned back in. The humor in his voice was not lost on her - seeing Kyle get a bit of his own would make Max more than happy.

Maria hadn't been listening to Max's uncharacteristic anecdote, so she let out a little laugh, hoping he'd think she had been.

He glanced over his shoulder at her, his smile wide, sincere, and Maria wasn't sure if it was Kyle's come-uppance or Isabel's that would have made Max so happy. Max knew his sister was a bitch.

"So, listen," Maria said as she rose from her position on his bed, anxious to be on her way. "Sorry again about breaking our plans. Maybe we could do it next Saturday?"

"Of course," he said, swiveling around in his desk chair.

"I tried to tell my mom I had plans already, but she wouldn't listen." Maria pasted on the fake pout.

"It's okay. Really. I understand." He shrugged. "Maybe I'll see if Milton needs some extra help tomorrow, pick up a couple extra bucks."

She nodded. "All right." Why was this so awkward? "I guess I should go. I need to get a good night's sleep."

"Okay," he said, smiling.

As Maria walked to the door, she thought that maybe, if things didn't work out tomorrow, she wouldn't mind being with Max. There wasn't much about him that she couldn't love. Her brow furrowed with a frown as she realized that even though she could love him, she would never be passionate for him. Max could never make her knees weak, could never make her heart beat faster. Okay, maybe he had the ability to quicken her heart rate, but he would never be able to stir the exquisite agony within her like Michael could.

She stopped at the door and turned around. Reaching Max in three long steps, she stopped before his chair and he looked up at her questioningly. Uninvited, she sat down on his lap and kissed him.

When they parted, she almost laughed at the startled look in his eyes.

"In case I never get the chance to say it," she began, "thank you."

He snorted, half-smiled. "For what?"

"For being you. For being kind and gentle. And sweet." She dipped her head and kissed him again. When she rose, she picked up his hand and held it until she'd moved too far away to maintain contact.

Then she turned and left his room without looking back.

*****

Maria's stomach was doing somersaults as she stood outside of the pod chamber. In one hand, she held the crystal she'd retrieved earlier that morning. She hadn't really believed Michael that she had powers now, so she'd taken a baseball bat with her. When she'd entered the room where the computer and crystal were, she'd raised the bat like a major league hitter and swung with all of her might. Her aim was true and the red triangular booby-trap was knocked out the window and exploded harmlessly.

Now, hours later, she was standing outside of the pod chamber entrance as the sun was starting to set over her shoulder. She looked down at the crystal and wondered why all alien devices were oddly phallic in appearance. Maybe the Antarians didn't have penises, and they had seen that humans did, and this was their version of penis envy. She hiccupped a little giggle that only made her stomach hurt more.

How to open the chamber? Just a wave of the hand. That's all it took. She looked at the smooth rock surface and tried to remember where that silver handprint would appear. Unable to recall its exact location, she resorted to slowly waving her hand across the entire flat surface of the rock. She caught a glimpse of silver and stopped. Retracing her path, the handprint suddenly shown brightly and Maria couldn't help the grin that came to her face. Michael had been right.

She placed her hand over the silver symbol and immediately there was a sound of rock on rock, the earth rumbled and the pod chamber opened. She suddenly felt much sicker to her stomach.

Inside the chamber, the air was cool, dry. Maria looked around at the empty pods against the one wall and mused that this place seemed so eerie, so foreign without one of the aliens with her. Dropping down on all fours, she crawled through one of the pods so that she could get to the granilith room. When the doors to the room slid open, Maria was greeted with a blast of stale, foul-smelling air. She coughed and waved a hand before her. It was obvious that the granilith had not been disturbed in some time, and that meant that the pod squad in this reality was not aware of its existence.

Maria stopped before the control panel of the granilith and looked up at its height. What if she couldn't figure out how to use it? What if she ended up rocketing off to some alien planet? She looked down at the crystal in her hand.

Using the granilith meant restoring things to the way they should be. But that meant that Max would cheat on Liz, Tess would seduce Max and set all of them up, and it meant that Alex would once again be dead. Maria felt a pang of remorse that she couldn't save Alex, but it wasn't up to her to play God. In the greater scheme of things, Alex was meant to die at seventeen, not be resurrected by Maria's fumbling with an alien device.

She whispered an apology to Alex, then inserted the crystal into its slot on the control panel. Immediately, the granilith jumped to life, spinning and casting eerie shadows on the wall. Maria's heart jumped in her chest. She had no idea what to do next, but then she had the sensation of being sucked through space and was suddenly looking out from inside the granilith.

The whirring noises became louder and Maria searched frantically for some kind of controls. There were none. Not outer space! she screamed in her head. The past! How do I get to the past!

But soon she was dizzy and quickly losing consciousness. This was a mistake. This was going to kill her.

Then there was a blinding flash of light.

And words.

"And even if it weren't I'm going out with Kyle. I mean, he's steady and loyal, and he appreciates me."

Maria felt somewhat detached as she heard her own voice. "Sounds like you're describing a poodle."

She picked up the coffee cups she'd just filled and started to wait on her customers. The guys she'd been waiting on in the corner were starting to become loud. Their conversation escalated into a shouting match until one of them pulled out a gun.

Everything seemed to fall into slow motion. Maria whirled toward Liz, who looked the part of a deer stunned in on-coming headlights. Maria had the urge to tackle her friend, to knock her to the floor, but something inside her head told her not to. Instead, she ducked behind a table.

The gun went off amidst screams and the two men ran for the door.

Maria hauled herself to her knees and looked behind the counter. Liz was lying motionlessly. "Liz......" Maria gasped, then Max was by her side.

"Call an ambulance," he ordered, then dropped to his knees beside Liz.

There was another blinding flash of light and suddenly Maria was looking up at Michael's water-stained ceiling. Her body hurt everywhere and she was gasping for air. She heard Michael's furious cry and looked at him just in time to see his hand raised, sending the cone smashing into the wall. It broke into a million tiny pieces and tinkled to the floor.

Michael collapsed to the floor beside her, and tried to catch his own breath.

"You did it," he said after awhile. "My God, you did it."

She nodded, relieved to the point of wanting to cry. "What a rush," she breathed.

"Wanna do it again?"

They met each other's gaze, shook their heads and burst out laughing. Maria rolled over on top of him and kissed him passionately. Her tears fell from her eyes and splattered on his cheeks. Using his big hands, he wiped her hair away from her face.

"It's okay," he told her. "Everything is okay now."

Maria met his eyes. "Are you sure? I mean, how do we know that for sure?"

Michael hesitated. She had a point. "Let's order pizza," he said. "And pay Max and Liz a little visit."

*****

When he heaved himself over the wall of Liz's rooftop, Michael was more than a little pleased with the sight before him. Max and Liz were tangled together on her lounge chair, kissing like human vacuum cleaners. Well, one human vacuum cleaner and one half-human vacuum cleaner.

Michael reached down and helped Maria onto the roof and they both started to grin. Michael cleared his throat.

Max and Liz both jumped. Max looked pissed. "What?" he demanded. "It better be important, Michael."

"It is," Michael said. "We brought pizza."

Maria met Max's gaze and for one moment she thought she saw a flash of recognition, of confusion there, but it couldn't be. Max had to be oblivious to what had just happened to them.didn't he?

"Oh, pizza," Liz said as she crawled out of Max's arms. "I'm starving!"

"Nookie will do that to you," Maria teased.

The foursome spread a blanket on the rooftop and put the pizza box between them.

"Oh, yeah, I have bad news," Michael said between bites.

Max eyed him curiously. "Yeah?"

"You know that cone thing?"

"Yeah?"

"I broke it."

Max raised his eyebrows. "You broke it?"

Michael nodded, knowing that Max had never cared what the cone was. "Yeah, I knocked it off the counter. You wouldn't think metal would shatter like that."

Max nodded his agreement. "Yeah, you wouldn't think. I guess you'll never know what it was now." He looked teasingly at his friend. "Think you can live with that?"

Michael shrugged. "I'll try. I can just let my imagination take care of that one."

As Max and Liz went about feeding each other in a nauseatingly romantic way, Michael looked at Maria. Had it all been in their imaginations? Had they taken some hallucinogenic trip together? Or had they really seen what the world would be like if one small detail were changed?

Maria looked across the blanket at Max and Liz. Her memories of kissing Max were already starting to fade away. And that was okay. Because she belonged here, in this world, with Michael.

The End