She had been waiting for some hours already, sitting alone at a table in an otherwise empty room, when she heard hushed voices coming from the just beyond the door. They were only just loud enough for her to make out:
Is this going to be a waste of my time, Reid?
I mean, does it talk? Can it answer questions or am I just going to get canned responses?
It's just like talking to a person, sir.
I feel ridiculous doing this, just so you know, Reid.
I'll be in the next room observing if you need me, sir.
The door opened and a middle-aged man entered the holding room. From his neck dangled a lanyard with an ID attached, the colors of which identified him at a glance as a Corporate VIP. Under his arm he held a tablet computer.
"You're the Princess Katherine?" It was as much a statement as a question.
"I am Princess Katherine, yes."
He seemed momentarily confused by her response, perhaps by the tone of it, but he recovered his poise quickly enough, and sat in the chair across the table from her. "Well, I'm Chilton Merrick, and I'm with Corporate Headquarters. I'm here to... how should I address you? 'Princess'? 'Your Highness'?"
"No need to be so formal, Mr. Merrick. Please call me Kate, if it makes you comfortable."
"Thank you." He sat across the table from her, laying his tablet directly in front of him. "I've spoken to Director Reid and the ride operators, and I've spoken to the boy and his mother, but I wanted to ask for your perspective about what happened, if that's all right."
"Of course. Anything I can do to help."
"Where were you when you noticed the boy was in distress?"
"I was walking my route on the concourse, in front of the shops. Specifically, by the ice cream stand."
"And what were you doing?"
"There were a number of guests on the concourse, quite a lot for that early in the day. A woman had just taken my picture with her daughters, and the children were telling me how they wanted to grow up and have a wedding just like mine."
"Like yours? Like your wedding?"
"Yes, my wedding to the Crown Prince. It was beautiful, what wonderful pageantry. People came from all over the Kingdom."
Merrick raised an eyebrow and allowed just a hint of a smirk to show on his face. "Yes, I... I saw the movie with my daughter. She liked the wedding too."
She smiled and nodded. "They all do, the girls. Some of them like the chase and the fight also, the adventurous ones, the tomboyish ones, but they all like the wedding."
"So you were posing for pictures with the guests. And then what happened?"
"I heard screaming coming from the roller coaster. 'The Highwayman'. It's new this season, you know, very popular. The line is always quite long."
"I've seen it. But isn't there always screaming coming from the roller coasters? People tend to scream on roller coasters, that's normal―"
"This was a different sort of screaming. I'm sorry, I don't quite know how to describe the difference. It's just not the same sort of scream when someone is truly afraid. It made me turn and look up."
"And you saw the boy?"
"I saw the cars stopped high up on an inclined section of track, and the boy hanging from the bottom, from the edge of the opening where one steps into the car. I don't know how he got out of the restraints. Perhaps he wriggled his way out, you know how boys can be. Do you have any boys, Mr. Merrick?"
"I'm afraid not. Only the one daughter. So you saw the boy hanging from the car―"
"Yes, exactly. He was hanging on for dear life, the poor thing. His mother was trying to get out of her own restraints to help him, but she couldn't."
"And then what happened?"
She shrugged and raised her eyebrows. "Well, I suppose I went to get him."
"Just like that?"
"In great haste, in fact."
"Princess... Kate. This is an important point, it's important that I understand why you went to get him."
"It seemed very much the natural course of action under the circumstances. He could have fallen, and he was very high off the ground. he almost certainly would have been killed. I ran to the fence, climbed over it, and then climbed up the support structure. When I reached the boy I took him by the waist, and carried him down to the ground with me."
"All while wearing this dress you have on now?"
"It's a ball gown, but yes." She absentmindedly smoothed the skirt down over her legs. "I don't find it too restricting. Of course it wouldn't be: the finest seamstress in the Kingdom made it for me on commission."
"Of course. Now, Kate: do you think it's odd that none of the other Princesses tried to save him? Why do you think it was only you who responded that way?"
"I'm sure I don't know, Mr. Merrick. They're all perfectly lovely people; very sweet to the guests. I'm fond of all of them. Perhaps they didn't see him until after I was already on my way?"
"Maybe." He referred to his tablet again for a moment, and then asked, "Have you always been a Princess Katherine?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're Princess Katherine now, but were you someone else before? Last season?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand the question, Mr. Merrick."
Merrick turned his tablet towards her and held it out where she could clearly see the screen. "Do you recognize this character, Kate?"
It was a woman in modern dress, an action-hero sort of woman, with a laser pistol in a leather holster and tall black boots and a pair of somewhat incongruous pigtails. She seemed the rough-and-ready type, not at all proper. "I don't think so... should I?"
He laid the tablet in front of her, pressed an icon on the screen, and she saw a slide show of different images of the same woman. "Well, Kate, this is Phoebe Tau. There was a movie about her twelve years ago, an animated 3-D action movie aimed at the tween demo. She was very popular. In the film, Phoebe saves a little boy hanging from a bridge after the bridge is struck by pieces from an exploded Invader rocket ship."
"I'm sorry, I've never seen her movie. Does she also greet guests at the park?"
He leaned in and asked, "Kate, do you remember being Phoebe Tau before you were Princess Katherine?"
She answered with a withering regal calm, "I'm sure I don't know what you mean; I've always been exactly who I am, so far as I remember."
He leaned back in his chair and assumed a conversational tone. "Kate, sometimes when the characters on the concourse aren't as popular as they used to be, they're re-fit as new characters. New head on the same chassis, new behavioral programming, new costume. It's less expensive than constructing all-new characters from scratch. So, when Phoebe Tau stopped getting much attention, she was sent to Facilities for a refit. Return To The Green Kingdom was just hitting theaters, so she became Princess Katherine."
"Mr. Merrick, I am Princess Katherine, as I have said. I can assure you that I've never even met this 'Phoebe Tau' woman." Gesturing at the picture, she added, "She doesn't appear to be the sort of person with whom I would associate; a person of noble birth." As if to punctuate her remark she reached out and slid the tablet back across the table towards Merrick.
He observed, "You associate with the guests, and the guests aren't of noble birth, are they?"
"Certainly not, but they're our guests. Our whole purpose is to make their visit enjoyable. One of the burdens of Royalty."
He stared at her a moment before smiling. "Of course. You've been very helpful, Kate. Someone will come by to escort you back to your area."
She returned his smile, and said, "I would appreciate that very much, thank you. And I hope the child wasn't too shaken up. He seemed dreadfully frightened."
"The boy's been checked out at the park infirmary: he's doing just fine, thanks to you." After he got up, he motioned towards the door and added, "Please excuse me."
The door shut behind Merrick and the hushed whispers resumed anew:
So, we tell the press it was a publicity stunt. We tell them it was a publicity stunt and we apologize, and we pay the mother off and be done with it. As soon as possible, too, so the news cycle ends before the authorities and watchdogs get too far involved. And for Christ's sake, Reid, have Facilities take that thing apart and replace it with a new one.
Yes sir, right away.