“Cut! Wildfire, your delivery was so forced there. You’re supposed to be showing a more vulnerable side to the usual tough demeanor.”
“I told you before, you blue buffoon, I don’t do vulnerable! And why is Neo Samurai even in this story, I don’t remember helping you take down Windrider when she went all ‘Let it go.” Wildfire slammed the script on the table in the center of their recording studio.
“Well, I couldn’t just not include the Neo Samurai in this adventure. So I took some liberties and included you, Icebringer, and Lotus in the retelling.” Stingray said, perusing his notes and sketchbook.
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask,” Wildfire tilted her head, still wearing the Neo Samurai helmet that Stingray had made for her. Sitting in a corner, flipping through the latest issue of Magnets and Metal, was the ‘True Receptor’, also known as Black Lotus. “Why are they here anyway? Not like they say anything. You just use that fancy toy of yours to synthesize a voice!”
Black Lotus looked up from their seat, biker helmet looking in the direction of the table. They gave a quick wave, before going back to their magazine.
“Err, well…You know…It helps to keep the creative juices flowing?” To be honest, Stingray didn’t have much of a reason at all. It had seemed only natural to invite the mysterious racer after getting a nod from them with the permission to make them a member of the Kuruma Sentai, and all the others were here for voice acting. At least the main five. Stingray used clips and voice manipulation editing for the villains and side characters during the production.
“Whatever. I’m going to go get something to eat. The Neo Samurai’s insatiable thirst for justice is only equalled by her hunger for whatever I heard your pals chowing down on while we were recording.”
With that, Wildfire stepped out of the recording studio. Black Lotus tilted their head, as if considering, before getting up from their seat, rolling the magazine and stuffing it under their arm, and heading out after her. Stingray watched them leave, his brow furrowing in confusion. “How do they eat with that helmet on all the time…”
“Hey, Ray? You have a guest looking to speak to you about the last broadcast.” Lenz said, peeking her head around the corner of the sound booth. “Just got word from the boys that there’s one of the tribals asking about ‘Super Stingray’.”
“Eh? Free Metal TV doesn’t broadcast that far out of the city. Weird. But if they got this far, they’re probably not a plant for the Sect!” Stingray said, taking off his costume. It was his idea that they all wear their costumes when recording, to help them get better in tune with the characters of his sentai series. It didn’t do as well for having strangers take him seriously, though.
Stepping out after Lenz, he walked through the halls of the pirate broadcast station. When he reached the front, he could see a girl with the markings of the indigenous tribes on her face, but dressed in clothes more common among the desert nomads and raiders. She was flipping through Super Stingray’s solo adventure manga, one of Stingray’s earliest works. Back when Super Stingray was still in his mobile suit. “Yo! Don’t think we’ve met before. Name’s Stingray. What’s yours?”
“Tayen,” she said, rising from her seat. “I am following my calling, and it has brought me to you.”
“Hey, that sounds sort of ominous…” Stingray said, laughing nervously. “I thought this was about the Super Kuruma Sentai.”
“That is why I’m here,” Tayen said, pointing over Stingray’s shoulder to where he had placed one of the cells from the last episode on the wall. It was the design for the Dream Catcher of the Lady of Ice. Stingray followed her finger, then looked back at the tribal girl, his eyes getting wider.
“W-wait, you’re from…Ah, now it makes sense. You want to know what happened to Windrider, don’t you?” The girl nodded in reply. “Well, I was there. You see, it all started with this Horn of the Ice Giants that a man named Judge had taken. Windrider was always after him, though why, I don’t know…”
It took some time, and several questions from Tayen, as Stingray retold the events of the long winter, this time without the embellishments of the Kuruma Sentai program. He told of how Windrider had absorbed the power of the Horn and become a living avatar of ice and snow, casting the world into a permanent winter. He and a few other pilots had banded together to stop her, but in the process, her spirit was destroyed, and the only piece of her machine they could find was the steering wheel.
By the end of the story, Tayen could feel the same sense of purpose moving through her as she did after her dreams. This wheel, Windrider’s Dream Catcher, needed to be reclaimed. “Where is the Dream Catcher?”
“I hung it on the mountain where Windrider was defeated, on the branch of the first tree that sprouted after the thaw. It seemed fitting.”
Tayen knew that was where she would need to go next. She didn’t say anything, didn’t even nod her head, as she turned for the door.
“Hey, wait! Before you go,” Stingray called out to the other pilot. “You’re new to this city, right? I’m sure you’re used to taking care of yourself but if you’re looking for friends or help, the Underdogs would be glad to have another pilot!”
She stopped, but shook her head. “I cannot join you. For I must follow this road of my calling to its end.” Tayen opened the door to the underground studio. “Good luck to you on your own path.”
“Yeah, same to you…” Stingray said, giving a small wave to her back. As the door shut, he could hear the loud voice of the ‘Neo Samurai’ carrying from the recording booth.
“Yo! We getting this recording down today, or what? I’m charging you extra if we go overtime! Been looking to get some new parts to try out on my machine anyway.”
Tayen’s machine slowed to a stop as she reached the top of the long winding path that led up the mountain. The rumbling of the engine, like those of horses charging across the plains, grew quiet. Just like Stingray had said, there stood a tree, now grown tall. The Dream Catcher hung from one of the higher branches.
There was no other option for her, however. Tayen grabbed the lower branches and started pulling herself up the tree, branch by branch. Each one brought her closer to her goal. She could hear the voices of her ancestors on the wind, blowing through the leaves. They were with her. She could feel the presence of another guiding her. A spectral green glow seemed to almost surround her as she climbed higher and higher.
There it was, at last. The Dream Catcher was in reach. Tayen leaned on the branch that was supporting her weight, reaching out to grab the steering wheel. Her fingers locked around the edge of the wheel, as the green light surrounding it joined hers. For a moment, it felt like a part of her that had been lost had now been joined again.
Suddenly, she realized she was falling. Not from the branches, but instead, she was falling through them. She passed through them as though she were not even there. Panic flowed through her as she raised the wheel in front of her like a shield. Just as suddenly as she had found herself falling through the tree, she found herself caught in the branches, corporeal once again. She tumbled down, grabbing the branches to slow her fall but holding onto the wheel the entire time.
With a thud, Tayen slammed into the ground at the base of the tree, quite corporeal as she felt her body stiffen with pain. Letting out a groan, she sat up. “What was that…?”
Footsteps behind her were her answer. She turned her head, as an unfamiliar figure loomed over her. The rising sun behind them cast their face in shadow.
“So you’ve returned at last. Looks like I was right.”