Karone quivered as her gloved hands desperately gripped the guard rail that ran along the trail of Angel Grove Canyon. The scene was unavoidable to her. This was the way it had to be. If she could force herself to release her grasp, the wind currents would tip her over, leading her into a fatal swan dive to the bottom of the deep valley.
The torment would be over, she assessed. Of course, she would die, Karone realized, but to do so wearing the costume would take the evil with her. The wig was missing from the battle suit, but the rest was there. The body suit of black leather, the fractal and tarnished armor, all of it a symbol of the life that haunted her.
"Goodbye Astronema," the blonde woman said to herself. "Goodbye Karone. I only wish I could've gotten to know you a little better."
Her fingers released their tension, grazing over the rail as she began to lean forward. She let her wait fall onto her toes, permitting her body's descent. Yet once her fingers were free, no longer wrapping themselves around the rail, a strong hand secured her wrist.
Karone was pulled back against the rail, and then over it a moment later. Frightened, the young woman stared into the questioning eyes of her savior, who only had a handful of words for the Kerovan.
"Start from the beginning."
Karone retreated into her room for the evening. She credited Zhane for another successful night on the town, which was not uncommon for the Silver Ranger. Whenever the two left the Academy for their personal affairs, she was always surprised and amused by the thought and effort that her boyfriend had put into the evening's events.
She tossed the white overshirt onto the coat hook anchored to the front door of her apartment, leaving her in a pair of jeans and her purple tee shirt. She sighed as she remembered the involuntary connection to the color thanks to her limited Ranger powers.
"Comes with the terrirtory," she accounted. After gripping her forehead in a wave of diziness, Karone blinked her world away. When she lifted her head, she found herself locked within a void. The only possible destination was a faint light some distance before her.
"Hello?" She called down the darkness. "What's going on?" She asked. "Zhane, is this another one of your infamous practical jokes? If it is, please stop because it's scaring the heck out of me."
"So," the familiar voice splintered from the darkness. "The mighty Astronema is afraid. What a pitiful turn of events. It is fortunate that we arrived when we did."
"We?" Karone felt a touch on the back of her shoulder, and felt the darkness consume her.
"Where have you been?" Justin asked as Andros stormed into the young Medical-Science officer's private office. "I've been trying to contact you for hours." The sprouting young man stood from behind his desk, and took a hidden exit out to a small white room containing an observation bed and some wall-mounted equipment. "We just found her like this," he explained, gesturing to the unconcious Karone atop the bed. "No clue as to what happened."
"Vitals?" Andros asked.
"Rapid breathing and pulse, increased subconcious activity." Justin reported. "One of the gophers went to her room when she never responded to several communication hails. He notified us immediately. The last time anyone saw her entering her room was last night, so she's been in this condition for some time." The boy looked back into his office. "Where's Zhane?"
"Not here." Andros answered. "He's giving our report for the month to the UN. He won't be back for at least a few more hours. I'd call him about this over the communicators, but he needs all of his focus on the presentation if we want to keep our funding."
"Understandable," Justin nodded. "Karone's brainwave patterns are erratic," he said, tapping a monitor above the bed. "Which means even though she's not experiencing any of this, to her there's something going on. And from the looks of things, it's got her pretty riled up."
"Can you wake her up?"
Justin shrugged. "Probably. I would have tried already, but technically she's not citizen of Earth. I had to work my butt off to get the limited medical license I did, and I wasn't about to blow it for a conflict in inter-planetery protocol. I'd have to do it at your specific request, and nothing less."
"Wake her up." Andros ordered.
"Thanks. Don't mind if I do." Justin reached for a slender tool with a thin vile protruding from one side. He carefully placed it against an artery on Karone's neck, and injected a small amount of an anonymous fluid into the woman's bloodstream. "Give it a few seconds," the boy instructed.
Karone began to stir, and as her eyes fluttered open Justin warned, "It won't last long, so say whatever you have to say now."
Andros nodded and leaned closer towards his sister. "Karone, what happened?" The twin mumbled something unintelligible. "I can't hear you, Karone. Tell me again, I need to know what happened." He positioned his ear closer to her bluish lips as the single word rushed by.
Andros pulled back as Karone fell back into her slumber, dumbfounded by what he had heard. "Astronema?" He repeated. "How could that happen? Astronema's dead," he admitted with a pain in his eyes. "I should know, I was there when it happened."
"Don't ask me." Justin shrugged. "This kind of stuff is Lita's department, not mine. Unfortunately the good doctor is out of town for a seminar and won't be back till late next week. The new guy taking her place for the time being isn't even half as efficient or thorough as she was, either. Not too mention he's already swamped with patients he's totally unfamilliar with."
"So for the moment, she's on her own?" Andros asked.
"Unless she comes to someone wih the problem." Justin reminded, "Which is not something many Kerovans are known to do, as far as I know." He checked Andros' reaction to the comment, which seemed to be nill. "Is there anyone she's close with besides Zhane. Someone she totally spills her guts to?"
"Possibly Ashley," Andros guessed. "I've seen the them have pretty involved conversations as of late. Still, I doubt this is something Karone is going to want to talk about period. Even Zhane hasn't been able to bring up the topic of her past without getting snapped at."
"That may be a problem," the young officer deduced. Before he had finished his sentence though, Karone had begun convulsing on the small medical bed. "But not the biggest one at the moment!" He corrected himself as he did his best to restrain the woman. "Hold her down!"
Andros did so, using a combination of physical strength and telekenesis to keep his twin still. His concentration broke only once Justin had successfully injected the Purple Ranger with a sedative. "Not exactly what I wanted to do," the medical officer explained, "But if keeping her under is going to keep that from happening---"
"I understand," Andros nodded.
"It's just too bad we can't get an idea of what's going on inside of her." Justin mused. He looked up to his employer and one-time comrade-in-arms. "You've got that look on your face, Andros. I don't like it when you're in here and you have that look on your face. It usually means your about to try something I'm not totally for."
"Wait here," Andros said as he darted from the room.
Justin slumped against the wall. "Oh boy."
"No!" Justin denied as she stepped between Andros, his companion, and Karone's bed. "I am *not* allowing you to do this, Andros!" For the first time since his welcoming into the Academy, the young man found himself standing against the senior Red Ranger's decission. "Whatever's in Karone's head is dangerous, and we have no idea what effects it will have on her!" He gestured an open hand towards the young ivory-clad recruit at Andros' side.
"Step aside," Andros commanded. "That's an order."
"Thank you," Justin sneered as he stepped away from the bed, most discontent with Andros' tactic. He bit his tongue as not to raise any more protest as the girl known as Trisha, the Academy's only telepath, prepared herself to enter Karone's mind.
"Purple," Trisha began her report after sealing her eyes shut. "I see purple. There's a wall," she said. "With a picture. No, it's a portrait, a family portrait."
"Who's in it?" Andros asked gently.
"You," Trisha replied. "Her, Mister Zhane, and Miss Hammond." She placed her fingers to her temple. "Wait, there's someone in the background. He's hidden in shadow. There are these --- green lines, running all over him. And these blood red eyes."
"Ecliptor." Andros guessed. "I'm not surprised. He was like a father to Astronema. Trisha, can you go any further? And deeper?"
The girl nodded, and continued her report. "The purple's gone. It's fading away. Everything's black, but I can still see everything." She shivered. "There's death -- bones and blood --- and faces. I," she gasped, "--I know some of those faces!"
"Karone's setting up walls," Justin commented as he stepped closer to the girl. "I told you this would be dangerous. Andros, something is trying to force Trisha out."
"Blue," Trisha continued, now too absorbed in Karone's mind. "One of the faces is blue. The eyes are black, and large. It's got this snout, and these things on it's head--Oh God! It's that one recruit -- the alien!"
"Weelo?" Andros confirmed.
"No," Justin corrected. "Karone wasn't anywhere near anything that controls the Simudeck for months before Weelo's accident. This is going to far. Trisha, you need to get out of Karone's mind. Now!"
"Already there," Trisha nodded. Her face twisted. "Something's wrong. She won't let go. Karone won't let me out!" Trisha grabbed her head in her hands as she began to thrash about. "I can't get out, the link is too strong! Get me out, get me out!"
"What's going on?" Andros asked. "Justin, what's happening?"
"I was afraid of this," the young man said as he and Andros attempted to hold the girl still. "Trisha may be the telepath, but Karone is refusing to sever the link between them. Whatever's controlling Karone's mind was trying to push her out, but Trisha didn't listen so now it's not letting her leave." Justin had to double his efforts to keep the girl from flying about the room. "And she's in a rather unhappy place from the looks of it."
Karone struggled to escape the darkness, but found no escape. The more she explored, the more she found herself in a boneyard of familiar faces. The one time a comforting hand reached out for her, the bones snapped at it, chasing it away like a scared rabbit. And perhaps the worst part for the Kerovan woman, was the inability to evade the predator stalking her.
"You're dead!" She said to the vision of Astronema that always seemed to pop up before her. "You died! On the Dark Fortress! I was there, my brother killed you! You don't exist, so get out of my head! Now!"
The figure still stood as a low laughter entered. Ecliptor, or a vision of the geometric serogate father of Astronema, stood behind Karone. "You don't quite understand, Purple Ranger. You can not order Astronema out of your mind, for it is her mind as well. In simplest terms my dear Karone, you *are* Astronema."
"No." Karone debated.
"Yes. You know it so. Search your heart for the small flame of darkness that even now grows stronger. You are Astronema, but you are also lost. But do not worry, dear Karone. We will see to it that you return to your roots."
"*NOOO!*" Karone snapped upright in the medical bed, finally breaking the link between herself and Trisha. As the Kerovan woman struggled to regain her senses, the young cadet fell unconciously to the floor. "Stay away from me!" She ordered, before fully understanding where she was.
"Karone?" Andros softly asked his twin. "What happened?" She seemed frozen. "Karone, please talk to me. It's Andros, your brother. If you can't tell me what's happening, we can't help you."
Karone's eyes began to flood, and she stiffly turned her head to her twin brother. She said the one event that she had always tried to prevent, the instance she never wished to happen. In one ghostly breath she said three words that would frighten her brother to his core. "Astronema wants out."
"Medical report," Justin said as he dropped the datapad on the instructor's desk. "Sorry, but Trisha O'Neil won't be making it to your class, or any of her classes for the next two days. I just need you to sign these acknowledgements so she can't be held accountable for her absences."
The petite brunette smiled. "You sound so much like Billy, y'know that?" Kimberly read over the form. "Justin, I don't think I quite understand. Why won't she be coming to class? And why won't it count against her? I can't make heads or tails out of this report."
The young boy, who currently stood barely an inch taller than the strategy coach, grumped. "Karone's going through a rough time. It's kind of like skitzophrenia, except she's trying to contain the emerging personality. Andros had the bright idea to send an untrained telepath into her head. It had a big impact on Trisha, and I have to keep an eye on her for any lasting effects." The boy sighed. "And to top things off, Doctor Kino can't counsel either of them at the moment."
"Oh, heck, you need counseling?" Reaching into a desk drawer, the former Pink Ranger flipped through a thick index of cards, handing one of them over to the young doctor. "Give that to Andros. It's probably the best person Karone should talk to right now."
Justin examined the card, immediately recalling the name. "I wasn't aware the two of you were on speaking terms. Again." He added, drawing only a shrug from the instructor. "Think this'll actually help?"
"Tommy's been through a similar experience. Several of them actually. He says he still has nightmares about the bad times to this very day. He got through it somehow. I only hope that he can give some advice to Karone."
"Thanks." Justin said, tucking the card into a pocket inside of his light blue waist coat. "I'll let you know how it ends up." He waited for Kimberly to scribble her name across the form and to reclaim the datapad before exiting her office.
"Oh, and Justin?" Kimberly added. "I know you're not the messenger, but could you tell Andros that the next time he endangers one of my students I'll sic Jason on 'im?" The boy nodded, and Kimberly flashed a smile. "Thanks."
Karone eyed the coin as it flipped upward into the air, and tumbled back to earth, only to be snatched up by a possessive hand. When Justin had told her that a special counsler would be meeting her in one of Angel Grove's many parks, she had no idea it would be the most experienced Ranger of Earth. She watched curiously, as Tommy continued to flip the coin from his seat against a mighty tree.
"This," he said, tossing the coin outward to the Kerovan woman's examination, "Is *my* nightmare."
Karone answered flatly, "It's a coin."
Tommy corrected, "It's my dark side." He pointed to the golden coin in the palm of her hand. "That was the coin that made me a Power Ranger. It's also the one thing that never fails to remind me that I'm not as innocent as I'd like to think I am."
"I don't think I understand," Karone admitted.
Tommy shifted a bit, and took a deep breath. "I keep the coin with me all the time for one reason. While it may symbolize the evil that once controlled me, it also helps me remember that I overcame that evil. Granted, it took a very good friend and a couple of bruises before I realized that, but I still survived a terrorfying part of my life."
"You defeated the evil." Karone said with her eyes on the coin.
Tommy laughed. "No. I never defeated the evil." He saw that he had gained Karone's full attention and curiosity. "The evil that was inside me also motivates me. If I didn't have that time haunting me constantly, I probably would have never strived to become the good person I am today."
"But don't those memories hurt you, as well?"
"All the time," Tommy answered. "But what you have to remember is---" He saw the woman grip her forehead. "Karone? Are you okay?" The Kerovan stood, shaking as she took a few steps away from him. "It's happening again, isn't it?" He asked, walking behind her.
"She's breaking through---" Karone warned.
"Karone, calm down. The more you fight it, the worse it's going to get." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "Listen to me, Karone." He saw the woman spin about, looking into his soul with a set of empty eyes. "Karone?"
The words dripped off her tongue. "I am Astronema," she declared. Catching Tommy off-guard, the woman launched her foot into his ribs, and then began to unleash an excellent assault consisting of punches and kicks that wouldn't knock Tommy down, but simply keep him dazed.
"Snap out of it!" Tommy ordered, block her last punch and grabbing her by both shoulders. "You're not Astronema, you're Karone!" The return of the woman's original personality came with a flood of tears.
"I---" Apologies were meaningless at the moment, but she forced one regardless. "I--I'm sorry." She cried. "Tommy, I'm so---" In the blink of an eye, she ran along one of the park's paths, disappearing into the horizon.
"Karone! Wait!" Tommy called after her, but found it useless. "Well, that didn't help much."
Andros sank into the leather couch that was custom in nearly all of the living quarters aboard the docked Megaship. "She ran?" He asked, frightened. Tommy nodded from across the room. "Great." He raised his eyes to the air. "Deca?" The computer beeped. "Can you locate Karone?" The reply was negative. "What am I going to do?"
"Relax." Tommy said. "Eventually she'll come back here. It's really the only place she knows after all. Regardless of what personality is in control, the school is still her home. She'll be back," Tommy assured. "Maybe sooner than you think."
Staring out of the Academy's front window, Andros felt a familliar hand on his shoulder. Quickly glancing over, he found Ashley by his side, as expected. He returned to his watch with a sigh. "It's been a few hours," he said. The sun had set some time ago, and the students at been retired for the evening. "Ashley---" he choked. "--I don't think she's coming back."
"You've been here forever, Andros." Ashley took his hand and tried to lead him away. "She won't come home any faster if you sit and wait up for her. C'mon," she gave a tug. "Why don't we get some dinner?"
"I can't." He answered tiredly. "She's out there somewhere, in trouble. To put that out of my mind for even a second is almost inconceivable." Andros shook his head. "I wish I could, but I've been looking out for Karone since before I can remember. It's not exactly a habit I could break in fifteen minutes."
Ashley sighed. She couldn't totally disagree with Andros on this matter. "Okay," she said. "But don't stay up too late. You of all people need as much sleep as you can get." She gave him a parting peck on the cheek, and padded away to her apartment for the night, leaving Andros to hold vigil for his tormented twin.
She pushed the door open as quietly as possible once her security clearance was confirmed. In this hour, the Power Chamber was in a dead silence. A few security officers who were currently awaiting their well-earned rest took notice of her late arrival. Even Droz, the mechanic who never seemed to leave his beloved Pit, had retired for the evening until the start of his early morning shift.
Snaking into one corner, she took the stairwells that lead into the Chamber's docking ring. It was a tiring journey after her day's worth of blind wanderings, and her muscles ached for relief. Regardless, she continued her climb as her body screamed in agony. It would soon stop, after all.
One more passcode brought her into the Astro Megaship, a powerful weapon that had since been retired into private living areas for the founders of the Ranger Academy. She easily made way to her room, thankful as she did not run into her brother, her boyfriend, or any other of her teammates.
With new determination, she raced deep into her apartment, and into the bedroom through a large archway in a rear corner of the living room. A mixture of excitement and fear gave her the strength to nearly tear a large door off it's rollers as she slid it into the wall, revealing an ample wardrobe. One outfit seemed to stand out in particular, moreso than ever.
"I've taken hundreds of lives already," Karone recalled as she pulled the black leather bodysuit from her apartment's closet. "I can't even be sure if I'm the one responsible for Weelo's death," she continued. "And I can't taking another life."
She reached for the top shelf, pulling down a sealed box. Taking a moment to search her grounds for a pocket knife, she sliced the packaging tape and sifted through the styrofoam peanuts before retrieving the tarnished armor of her other personality.
"There's only one way to do this." Karone said to herself. "I've promised myself that if I ever put you on again," she adressed the costume as if it were her alter ego, "It would be the last time I did anything, again. But I do know one thing," the woman said, tossing her purple waistcoat onto her bed. "If I die, you can bet your pretty little wig that you're coming with me."
As the late night spun itself into the early morning, Karone began the almost lengthly process of applying her battle suit for the last time. Not opting for a horrid wig of unnatural color, she rationalized the situation once more in her mind, and stepped away from her apartment, ready to eliminate the conflict within her one way or another.
"And that's it," Karone finished. "I believe you know the rest." She stood, but away from the edge of the canyon as instructed by the person who had saved her life. "I need to get rid of her. I need Astronema out of my head before I lose control." The Kerovan woman made another comment, one that caused as much pain to say as to hear. "You should have let me fall."
Cassie's hand slapped hard against Karone's pale skin. "What are you thinking?" The Pink Ranger asked. "You have one bad experience since the Peace Wave and you're willing to throw your entire life away?"
"I don't want to hurt anyone." Karone admitted.
"But if you did," Cassie pointed a finger under Karone's nose. "You would have snapped my neck the minute my hand made contact with your cheek. I know you don't want to hurt anyone, and you know you don't want to hurt anyone. But if I didn't stop you, you would have hurt everyone close to you. I may not be the closest to you, and neither may Carlos or TJ, but you can bet we would all miss you. Ashley, she thinks of you as the sister she never had. Zhane would be devestated, and I can't even guaruntee Andros wouldn't follow in your footsteps."
"I can't live each day battling Astronema."
"And you think you're the only one with their personal demons?" Cassie asked. "I just came back from a trip, where I found out the man I've been fawning after for years isn't even a man anymore, but a machine with a brain! He showed me a picture of a woman that he had unknowingly carried around for years, and credited his feelings for me to transferrence! Don't you think that I wish I could ignore that part of my life? Of course I do, but I can't. Just like you can't ignore what you used to be."
"Astronema's stronger than me."
Cassied released a groan of frustration. "You *are* Astronema! You've always been strong, you've just hidden it from everyone, including yourself. You may have been brainwashed when you were younger, but underneath the suit, and the wigs, it was still you. It was still Karone."
"The truth!" Cassie interupted. "Everything you have ever accomplished in your life, was because of you, not some stupid armor. It was you who had the strength to fight for your cause, even if you were misguided. It was you who had the heart to help Andros when he needed you the most. It was you who had the courage to usurp Dark Spectre's position. But more importantly, it was you, not Astronema, who had the power to accept what you had done and join our family."
"Is just a name." Cassie continued. "Just a title given to you to tell others exactly how strong you are. Astronema can't be stronger than you, because Astronema is just a name. You on the other hand, used to be able to take on everything the galaxy had to offer."
"Then why can't I now?" Karone cried.
"You're just at a bad time." Cassie soothed. "Everyone gets to that point where even for one moment, they wonder if it's worth going on, if they should continue wasting their time for what they believe in."
"Do you ever get to that point?" Karone asked.
Cassie nodded. "More times than I'd like to count. But one day, in a situation kind of like this, I realized that even if I wasn't that strong, my strength would only increase once I made it through that time. And I did get stronger after that experience, which helped me through the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that." The Pink Ranger cupped a hand against Karone's shoulder. "But you have to get through that first experience before anything truly gets better."
Karone released a weak smile, showing a silent appreciation for Cassie's efforts.
"C'mon," Cassie subtly pulled Karone after her. "Let's get back to the Academy. The others are probably worried sick over you." She shook her head. "I imagine you'll have quite a few hugs and quite a few questions when you walk through the door."
"Andros is going to be seriously ticked." Karone snorted. "By the way, I didn't even bother to leave a note or anything, how did you find me all the way out here?"
"Karone," Cassie said, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."