Warning: smuttiness ahead.
THIS TIME ROUND: A MOST TAXING EVENING
It was a slow night at the Steel Maiden, which suited Izzy's mood
more than just fine. The toddlers had been in rare form all day
and even after a long bath, her hands still smelled of the incense,
lye soap, depleted uranium soaked in holy water, and fresh tapioca
pudding it had taken to get them all back under control -- needless
to say, without help from the wonderful Mr. Supervisor. But that
was over now and Izzy was refusing to think about the fact that it
would all start again in twelve hours. No, this was chill-out time
for Isabelle Sinclair, time for cool drinks and quiet company, so
the absence of most of the 'Maiden's more rambunctious, rowdy,
or clinically insane regulars was a gift from the heavens.
As she made her way to the bar, she could see a reason for at least
part of the quiet. It had to do with the worn old jukebox and the
brand-new hole that had been smashed through the front of it.
"Was it someone's head or their fists that did that?" Izzy asked as
she parked herself on a stool next to the bar's bouncer. Bella might
be taken, she might be a hired enforcer who could gut you with a
finger, and she might have a taste for drinking sentient creatures'
blood, but if you had to look at something all evening, it might as
well be an achingly gorgeous brunette in a revealing dress who
liked to flirt.
"It was a posterior, actually," the vampire smirked back. "And a
most unattractive set of hindquarters at that."
Izzy motioned to Scarlett, the one-eyed barmaid, for her usual --
a frozen cherry-and-banana daiquiri, easy on the rum. "Someone
smashed the jukebox with their _butt_?" she went on. "I'm
having trouble visualizing that, and I think that's a good thing."
"No, it was another person's... buttocks... they put through there.
Lauryn Tiberia's buttocks, to be precise, while the deed was done
by Ms. Emasculator, in a squabble over a game of berserker chess.
Impressive distance on her toss, too, though I bested it handily
when I ejected them both."
Izzy sighed. "Great. Now I _am_ visualizing it and I was right... it's
not good." But then she brightened considerably on the arrival of
her drink. Ah, alcohol -- proof positive that God loves us. Izzy
closed her eyes and let the cool sweetness of it soak through her.
"Hmmph," someone rumbled. "Streaky-hair happy girl looking
streaky-hair not-happy. Madeleine fix." Izzy opened her eyes,
flinching just a little at the proximity of the burly Ogron cook, who
was leaning across the bar. "Here," Madeleine growled, thumping
a dish down in front of her. "Is new recipe. Streaky-hair happy girl
try, tell Madeleine if good, yes?"
What the Ogron had set in front of Izzy was, after a moment's
observation, identifiable as a chocolate cake. But it took a bit to
realize this, as the actual cake part of the cake was buried under
layer upon layer of gooey fudge, frothy whipped cream, caramel,
cherries, nuts, butterscotch, and various things Izzy couldn't
readily identify but that smelled good enough to cause an
"My, that _does_ look good, my fine Ogron lass," said Scarlett,
reaching over to pinch off a bit. "I'll have a OWWW!" The
concluding yelp being the result of Madeleine smacking the back
of her hand with a wooden spoon.
"Back self off, boss lady," she warned. "Is only streaky-hair
happy girl opinion wanted. All people _not_ streaky-hair happy
girl keep ass-scratchers to selves."
"You dare be insubordinate with your command-- er, employer,
Madeleine?" Scarlett demanded, rubbing at her new bruise.
"Is so. Go all way to 'mutinous', too, if boss lady and little sharp-
teeth girl mess with Madeleine special dessert." Madeleine gave
her slope-browed head a haughty, dismissive toss. "Streaky-hair
happy girl is only person come around what have taste and no crazy
in head, so Madeleine cook best just for such girl."
"Did you just lump me in as tasteless and crazy, too?" Bella purred
coldly, being the quickest at deciphering Ogron syntax. "How
dreadfully rude of you, dear Maddie. Shall I be rude, too?" Her
lips peeled back, exposing a pair of gleaming-white and
unsettlingly pronounced canines.
Scarlett had slipped a wheel-lock horseman's pistol out of her apron
and was holding it by the barrel, ready to clout a skull with the butt
of it. But as soon as she hefted it, she seemed to catch herself and,
with a muttered scatological oath, tossed the weapon back under the
bar. "Stop!" she commanded, sounding tired. "Everyone, at ease.
We all are at dagger-edges right now, so settle back."
Izzy had been watching all this with mounting trepidation and was
only too happy to see the tension drain out of all three 'Maiden
staff, especially Madeleine. "Sorry for smacking boss-lady," the
Ogron grumbled. "And for bad-mouth little sharp-teeth girl. But
new recipe is _much_ special."
"And I'm sorry for taking offense at patently true statements,"
Bella chimed in.
"Rest easy, lasses." Scarlett patted both her employees on the
shoulder. "Our predicament does have us all biting our bucklers."
"Predicament?" Izzy wondered aloud. "What kind of predicament
are you guys in?"
Scarlett sagged against the till, rubbing the scar on her forehead.
"It would seem the foe has outmaneuvered me this time, the great
There was only one 'walrus-faced knaveling' in Izzy's mental
Rolodex. "You mean the Proprietor?" She sliced off a bit of
Madeleine's dessert; so gooey, it was a trick keeping it on the fork.
"Guy that runs the 'Round? What's he done now? SWEET HOLY
Izzy had casually forked a bite of cake into her mouth, but her
expression was now anything but casual. She swallowed hard,
clutching the bar with one hand for support and using the other to
point with trembling fork at the confection before her. "What the...
how did... that's not..." She turned bulging, shimmery eyes on her
Ogron benefactor. "I swear," she husked, "it's like my taste buds
are having a cocaine orgy!"
"So, is good, yes?" Madeleine cocked her shaggy head and let out
a panzer-at-idle rumble of laughter. "Madeleine assuming that
streaky-hair happy girl shoving whole face in plate mean is so. Is
all Madeleine needing know." With a nod she headed back into the
kitchen, muttering under her breath about, "...try to be topping
_this_, Cousin Charlotte, heh heh heh..."
"So anyway," garbled Izzy around a mouthful of increased risk
of diabetes, "predicament?" There was caramel on both her cheeks,
but she'd deal with that when the main part of the food was gone.
"Predicament, aye," Scarlett reconfirmed. "And a vexing one in that
I must needs leave the countering of it to another. I never _did_ like
delegating field commands. But the scurrilous pillock has struck us
'pon a flank I've no wit to cover."
"He's sicced the tax people on us," explained Bella. "The blasted
Department of Excise, Revenue, and Taxation. They claim there were
'errors' in Scarlett's last filing and now they're breathing down our
collective yet metaphorical necks. They're talking jail, fines that look
like phone numbers, deportation, public flogging, plagues of
"_Were_ there errors, or are they just harrassing you?" Izzy asked.
Scarlett shrugged angrily. "How the flippin' hell should _I_ know?"
She dragged a leather-bound tome from under the till and thumped it
down on the bar, which perceptibly bowed under the weight; the thing
was as thick as any three random Stephen King novels lumped
together, though probably less predictable or anticlimactic. 'DERT
Codes and Regulations' read the title, and flipping it open to a random
page revealed near-microscopic print, incomprehensible charts,
indecipherable graphs, and what may or may not have been cursed
"Wow," said Izzy. "It's like a Necronomicon for bureaucrats. Hell
itself wouldn't need this big a tax code, much less Outside."
"That's not the tax code," corrected Bella. "That's the _summary_
guide for the tax code. We tried to get a look at the full edition, but
it takes up an entire restricted-access wing of the Nameless Library,
with appendices engraved on a set of basalt obelisks beside the
Lake of Hali, addenda stored in a trio of supercomputers in a secret
bunker guarded by werewombats, and amendments encoded into
microdots sewn into the hem of Ann Talbot's favorite camisole. We
nearly got _those_, by the way."
Scarlett had begun to pace -- not a habit of hers. "I can't answer an
accusation when I can't even understand half the words of it! When
a man tries to stab me, I parry and run him through. When a flank
collapses under cavalry attack, I counter with the reserves. But I
know not what defense to make against 'anciliary counter-non-
depreciable pro-rated retroactive surcharges'."
Izzy shook her head. "Spack, it sounds like you're screwed. Screwed
like Varla on a payday. Speaking of which..." She looked around the
common room, noting the total lack of anything Movellan. A glance
at the basement door revealed a 'closed' sign taped to it -- quite
unprecedented. "...where _is_ everybody's favorite omnisexual alien
android prostitute? I'd have thought she'd be up and about on a slow
night like this." This was generally true. When Varla wasn't 'plying
her trade', she tended to hang out at the bar. 'Reconnoitering the
biologicals', she called it, just one sign among many that her new
'friendly' programming hadn't _entirely_ overwritten her old 'conquer
the organic races' programming.
"I _did_ say I had to delegate command for this attack, did I not?"
"Ah," Izzy nodded, mopping up the last puddles of her dessert.
"Wait." She stopped in mid-praline-from-finger-lick as her brain
processed this bit of input three times before deciding the result
had to be real. "You mean... _Varla_ is dealing with the tax people?
You sent Varla?" She pointed at the basement door. "_That_ Varla?
Dreadlocked mechanical rental tail Varla?" Izzy stared around the
room for a better answer and, finding none, swung back to Scarlett
with a disbelieving, "Smegging _Varla_!?"
"Uh-huh. So... your strategy is to claim insanity?"
Bella sighed. "She was the most logical choice. And, yes, I am
quite aware how sad that is. Scarlett's from a pre-industrial society
and -- while certainly progressive in her way -- still has trouble with
modern concepts such as 'compound interest' and 'not burning
witches'. Madeleine is perfect for any task as long as it involves
preparing delicious food, beating something to death, or preferably
both. And I..." Bella blushed and laid a hand to her chest. "...am
easily flustered by dealing with authority figures. I tend to get all
wobbly and a bit confused, you know." She looked the very picture
of demure maidenhood, until she added, "And then I start biting
throats. Things tend to go downhill from that point."
"I, uh, get that," mumbled Izzy as she discretely put a little more
space between herself and the vampire bouncer, "but why send a
robotic hooker to do an accountant's job?"
Bella laughed, drawing Izzy back those few inches she'd just moved
and then some; bloodsucker or not, she had a voice like the Angel
of Sultry. "Ah, but Varla _is_ an accountant, my dear!"
"Since lunchtime. I had a friend of mine modify her programming
with some tax-management software."
"Uh-huh." A skeptical expression had just put down two months'
rent and a security deposit on Izzy's face. "See, the thing is, since I
agreed to work at the Nursery from Hell, I've learned to carefully
parse what people tell me. You said you had Varla's programming
_modified_. Not replaced. Not overwritten. You just tacked
something else on to what was there, which was _already_ glitchy
and screwed-up because of her _first_ modifications, when a
'friend' of yours downloaded _Sappho Jackson's Guide to Pleasuring
Women_ into her behavior circuits. She went from just wanting to
subjugate the universe to wanting to have her way with it first. And
now you've done it again, making her what? A ruthlessly efficient
slut who's good at math?"
"Do you think I'm such a fool as to not know all this?" Scarlett
countered. "Think you I'd be in such a state as this if the folly of it
weren't plain to me?"
"Then why do it?" Izzy thumped a finger on the bar for emphasis.
"Hire a _real_ accountant and you'd at least have a chance. There
are a few people in Outside who'd take the job. Donna, maybe. Or
that nice Mr. Arisaka--"
"People I do not know and cannot trust," Scarlett interrupted. "The
Proprietor, git though he be, has a cursed long reach. If he has
friends 'mongst the DERT-bags, who is to say he has not suborned
such free-lancing clerks?" Her eye narrowed, glaring about
suspiciously. "How far might his conspiracies have got? We may
even now be ensnared by his cunning ways."
Izzy had a slurp at her neglected daiquiri. It was good, but compared
to Madeleine's dessert it was like liquid masking tape. "I think you're
being a bit paranoid, Scarlett."
The barmaid shrugged. "Paranoia is a worthwhile thing, if it is right
only once. Varla is a questionable creature in many respects, but her
loyalty is not among them. Demented, slutty, and a bit evil she might
be, but she is _our_ demented, mildly evil slut."
"There is a slut on the premises? Direct me to her at once."
The trio looked to the doorway as the woman who'd spoken slinked
her way in. Silvery dreadlocks framed a long, handsome face the
color of dark honey. Heavy-lidded almond eyes flicked alertly, not
blinking quite often enough. Her stride had a practiced 'pounce me'
roll to it, very effective coupled with a tight white Movellan
bodysuit. Just the bottom half, though. Her only top-covering
was a tiny shirt that stopped just short of being a halter-top,
emblazoned with the words, 'Not just anatomically correct,
"Oh, uh, hi Varla," Izzy chuckled nervously.
"Good evening, Isabelle," the Movellan purred, sidling up beside
her. Izzy jumped as the android's fingers slid lightly up her back.
"Would you like to be bedded? I have added new techniques to my
"N-no thanks." Izzy tried to ease away, but the bar blocked her in.
"I... haven't got any money."
Varla intruded further into Izzy's personal space. Movellans
simulated organic humanoids pretty closely, down to breathing
and maintaining a warm body temperature, but there was still a
subtle sense of unreality about them, a sort of aura of mechanical
sterility. Their movements were too purposeful, too calculated.
Izzy didn't hold Varla's robotic nature against her -- quite the
contrary. But on the other hand, that vague creepiness didn't
help matters when Izzy was already skittish about such intimacy,
not to mention the distastefulness of being propositioned so baldly.
"Seriously, I'm flat broke," she tried again.
Varla pressed against her, proving that the statement on her shirt
was no lie. Anatomically correct and then some. "Money is no
object, Isabelle. I will write the endeavor off on my end-of-fiscal-
year return as a charitable donation."
About the only thing Izzy wanted even less than meaningless,
unromantic robot girl-sex just then was _charity_ meaningless,
unromantic robot girl-sex. She had just started trying to push
Varla off her when something whirred through the air and a gruff
voice called, "Heads up!" from back near the cooker.
With digital precision, Varla's hand shot out and caught the
incoming meat cleaver by the handle, mere inches away from her
realistically-simulated, anatomically correct nose.
"Oops," growled the Ogron cook as she lumbered out of the kitchen.
"Madeleine not know _how_ managing to lose hold of cleaver like
that. How clumsy." Her voice, always harsh, bore not the least trace
of apology, nor did the flint-hard eyes she kept locked on Varla's as
she took the cleaver back from her. Izzy, silently grateful, took the
opportunity to slip away from the Movellan doxy's grasp.
Bella and Scarlett, observing this, shared a knowing look that neither
Izzy nor Madeleine saw.
The barmaid cleared her throat. "Anyway, Varla, how went your
sojourn at the DERT office? May I take from your demeanor that
victory is ours?"
"Negative," Varla reported without inflection. "I was unsuccessful
at the task assigned me, as the extent of my programming proved
insufficient to deal with the complexity and irrationality of the data
Scarlett snarled something blasphemous-sounding that Izzy didn't
catch, but was bad enough to make a vampire and an Ogron blush
with shame. Still, Scarlett was an old soldier and like any good
officer knew that the first thing to do in a defeat was to try and
understand the scope of it. "Tell me what went wrong first," she
sighed, grabbing a wine bottle at random from the rack behind her.
"I'll deal with 'how bad is it?' once I'm properly crocked." She deftly
smashed the bottle against the edge of the bar, breaking off the
neck, and poured a long gulp of it down her throat.
"The situation unfolded well at first," Varla explained. "The receipts
and transaction data you provided were sufficient to answer the
initial charges against the Steel Maiden. Success, however, seemed
to increase the hostility of the DERT personnel and their challenges
became more detailed, obscure, and on occasion contradictory. This
placed considerable load upon my processor core, which in turn
resulted in overheating and the decompartmentalization of program
functions, causing acute errors in query-response routines. This
reached a critical point during questioning regarding inverse-
depreciation of retro-amortized assets claimed under Title 376,
Volume 708, Section 24.87.3-C, Subsection CXXII, Paragraph Rho..."
"Speak to me facts, not incantations," Scarlett demanded.
Varla didn't quite get that and looked to Bella for clarification.
"Summarize it for her without using technical terms," the vampire
Varla nodded and continued. "The upshot was that my various
programs -- military, sexual, and accounting -- interfered with one
another, causing me to reply to the auditors' charges in highly
Scarlett groaned. "How inappropriate?"
"For instance, rather than producing the relevant receipts for
cookware purchases and justifying their full deductibility, I instead
stripped nude, forcibly restrained the auditors by tying them up with
their own undergarments, and spanked them all with Volume 14 of
the _DERT Fines and Penalties Handbook_ while insisting that they
acknowledge my absolute authority. Deviations became even more
extreme from that point, until my processors had cooled enough to
Izzy turned to Madeleine and calmly asked, "Do you have some
bleach I could borrow? Along with something to inject it into my
The Ogron shook her head, wide-eyed. "Madeleine not having
enough to spare after using on self first. Yeuuccch!"
Scarlett held up a hand. "Enough, Varla. I see now what you mean
-- and, hell take me, I'll never be able to _unsee_ it. Just tell me of
their final judgement." She took another swig, bracing herself.
"After discussion, the audit staff arrived at a figure of 500 pounds
per week, to be paid indefinitely."
Scarlett winced. "A perpetual fine? That'll hurt. A lot. 'Tis an
improvement over jail or exile, though not by much."
"Ah," said Varla. "I have not explained the situation sufficiently.
There were no penalties assessed against the Steel Maiden. All
charges were annulled by the DERT Auditors' Board and stricken
from the record."
Scarlett could only blink -- or _wink_, in her case -- at this abrupt
shift in her favor, not entirely getting it yet. Bella, though, was
a bit quicker. "First you say there's a 500 pound fine," she
demanded, "then you say there's _no_ fine. Are your circuits
"My functionality has entirely recovered," Varla replied, sounding
the least bit defensive. "I never stated that there was a fine, Bella.
The 500 pounds is what the DERT auditors will pay _me_ to come
around on Thursdays and stick ball-point pens up their--"
With a cry of, "Bleach!" Izzy and Madeleine bolted for the janitor's
Now it was Varla's turn to blink uncomprehendingly at activity she
couldn't understand. However, she had other priorities than
studying the nuances of organic creatures' erratic behavior. She
turned her attention back to her boss. "So, Scarlett..." She licked
her lips, one of the first mannerisms she'd picked up after her
reprogramming. "Regarding that slut you mentioned earlier..."
'Doctor Who' is property of the BBC.
'This Time Round' created by Tyler Dion.
Type(s): Steel Maiden
Blurb: The Proprietor's latest plot against the competition results in a
tense night at the Steel Maiden.