Even two years later, Stella Hawkins was still bothered by the removal of her memories after she failed in the Hero Certification Program. It wasn’t as if the two years were wiped from her mind entirely; she kept the experiences, but the names, faces, and places attached to those experiences were gone from her mind. There was a constant itch at the back of the brain that hit from time to time. Like a feeling of having something just at the edge of her thoughts that she couldn’t quite remember.
To compensate, Stella threw herself into her studies, and the volunteer work, that she had to admit were the reasons she had failed out of the Hero Certification Program. Leaving the HCP was the reason that she’d had portions of her memory removed. She’d insisted that all her memories of all the people she knew be removed, because she wanted to make a clean break from that life. The memories had been removed to protect the secrets of those students that would graduate from the Lander HCP as licensed heroes with secret identities.
Instead of the HCP training, Stella had found herself far more passionate about her work on her dual majors in women’s studies and social work, and squeezing in as much time as she humanly could helping at a battered women’s shelter; instead of spending her weekends obsessively training like…
A memory of a gym with people sparring glided across Stella’s brain and slid away as she tried to recall the names and faces of the other HCP candidates. She remembered the training and skills, and had vague memories of a river trip, and sex with…
The memory skidded away from Stella, causing her to growl in frustration.
She did retain her knowledge of fighting, and how to use her powers, and the knowledge about the world of supers from her HCP training. There was also a greater degree of discipline, and Stella had to admit there was also a greater degree of humility. She remembered that she once had a fear and contempt for powereds, those unfortunates that had abilities that they could not control, but after her time at the HCP she instead found herself understanding and respecting their hardships more, and had become the go to volunteer at the shelter for dealing with powered abuse victims.
After Stella left the HCP behind there was no need for her to conceal the fact that she could transform her body into steel, though she was urged to not use the ability on campus to reduce the odds of students still in HCP training having their identities outed. But there were a few incidents at the Lighthouse women’s shelter where the ability had proved invaluable. One where a powered woman sweated poison, another where the father of a powered boy beat him nearly to death, and she needed to reassure the kid that she understood what having abilities was like. There was also a particularly nasty incident where an abuser who was a super attacked the shelter, and Stella was able to hold him off until licensed heroes made it to the scene.
Following that incident there was, of course, an investigation by the Department of Variant Affairs to ensure that Stella had acted in self-defense, and that the situation could not have been defused without her resorting to using her powers. It was quickly determined that Stella had acted correctly in grabbing and carrying away a man who could fire laser beams from his eyes before he could burn down the shelter.
More surprisingly, Stella found herself the subject of a persistent recruitment effort by the DVA. Agents came to the shelter after the events involving powereds and supers, and each time they made a point of talking with Stella, and urging her to come in for an interview after her graduation from Lander.
Out of a mild curiosity more than anything else, and a desire to visit friends who’d moved to Virginia where the DVA headquarters was, Stella agreed to a visit and an interview. More than anything else, she was curious as to why a federal law enforcement agency would want someone who dropped out of the HCP to pursue a career in social work.
A plane ticket arrived along with an itinerary that included a stay in a hotel near the headquarters, and a stipend for meals and a car rental. Stella was again mystified as to why the DVA was so intent on recruiting her, as the ticket was first class, and the hotel and meals were very fine.
After a cross country flight, and an arduous drive in a rental car to the hotel, Stella collapsed into bed immediately; looking forward to taking advantage of the three hour time difference to get some extra sleep. Her last few semesters at Lander had been frantic; as she spent every waking hour pushing through to her major as fast as possible, so she didn’t have to put up with the itch at the back of her mind that came up every time she walked through campus.
Stella’s’ first morning in Virginia found her awake at 6AM; the discipline from her time at Lander getting her up despite jet lag throwing her normal sleep cycle out of whack, and denying her hours of sleep. She changed into exercise clothes, did a 10K run, and spent a satisfying hour in the hotel weight room pushing her limits as much as possible.
Stella Hawkins would never be a licensed hero, but her HCP training had continued to be useful, so she persisted with what she could remember of her lessons, and had taken to teaching women’s self defense courses at the shelter. This meant also continuing to push her own fighting skills as much as possible. Even when she didn’t transform her body into steel, Stella found that she could deal with violent people on the rare occasions that it was required.
After the longer than usual morning workout routine, Stella still found herself washed and professional looking at the DVA headquarters ahead of schedule. Like every other federal building, it was ugly and functional. The main lobby was huge, and inside the building was less brutal and hideous. A security kiosk stood in the middle of the open and well lit lobby. Security equipment that looked far more advanced than anything Stella had seen even at the airports stood as a sort of wall between the entrance lobby and the rest of the facility.
After passing the security screen Stella was given a visitor’s badge, told in the strongest possible terms to never leave visitor areas without an escort, and left to cool her heels. She spent the next half hour or so practicing meditation techniques and centering herself. Her martial arts instructors felt that Stella’s temper and impatience were a major problem, and introduced her to meditation as a means of dealing with it. It also helped her deal better with the frustrating gaps in her memories.
Stella opened her eyes with a calming exhalation of breath to find herself being addressed by a matronly looking woman of about fifty or so. She looked like the stereotype of the kindly older aunt or grade school teacher that is universally loved and respected by all children.
Stella nodded and stood, holding her hand out to be shaken. The woman shook with a firm grip a lot stronger than Stella expected.
“I’m Miriam Foster,” the woman said. “I’ll be showing you around, and if you like what you see, and if we think we can work with each other, you’ll be reporting to me. Consider this an informal job interview, though honestly we’ve had our eyes on you ever since the Dean at the Lander HCP campus brought you to our attention.”
Stella winced, trying to fill in a blur where a name and face once existed.
“Oh I’m sorry,” Miriam said. “They edited out your memories only a year-and-a-half ago or so didn’t they? It’s a real pain in the ass, but it does get better over time. The trick is to keep busy, and fill that little brain up with newer and better experiences.”
Stella was a little shocked at even the mild swear given Miriam’s appearance, but managed a mumbled thanks. Knowing this was a job interview made her a little nervous, and she’d been a little out of sorts since leaving the HCP. Stella resisted the urge to deal with her sense of unease by interrogating her possible future boss about why she was even there.
Miriam continued talking as she briskly walked Stella through a maze of rooms and corridors. Stella was able to note that Miriam had time to give a nod or greeting to almost everyone, and that all of the other DVA staff regarded Miriam with obvious respect and pleasure.
“I do wish they let you keep your memories, or at least leave the option of recovering them for those that come to work in our department. Most of our recruits are a bit scrambled in their first few years; as we recruit almost exclusively from HCP students who make it through at least their sophomore year.”
“Because we need agents who have some experience using their powers in combat, but we don’t want any heroes showing up at incidents. There are some heroes that can do what we do, but most of them are just not right for the job. They’re all about storming in and breaking legs, which is very much not what we want. Sometimes we can work with PEERs teams, but they aren’t entirely reliable, or consistently good at dealing with the situations we’re called into. We need teams of people who are dedicated only to our particular work.”
“And that work is?”
“Stella, do you happen to remember Agent Morse and Agent Ghorbani? This would be about ten years ago or so. You’d punched a boy so hard you’d broken three of his ribs and put him in the hospital. Lacerated organs, and a mild concussion from when he flew back and struck the wall.”
“He was snapping my bra strap in class!” Stella raged. The incident still filled her with an unfair sense of shame and humiliation, and after that, anger when other girls came to her for protection from boys that did even more horrible things. It was what had prompted Stella to apply at the HCP in the first place.
Other DVA staff in the hallway they were walking down stared at the pair of them in shock, and Stella flushed in embarrassment.
“Yes dear, but a bit of an overreaction, though that’s not unusual with kids who exhibit powers like yours.” Suddenly there was force and authority in Agent Foster’s voice. “Now answer the question young lady. Do you remember the agents that interviewed you after that incident?”
Stella cast backwards into the distant past from when she was twelve. Her powers had been so unreliable back then, occasionally her skin would go funny, but when Jack Miller taunted her for being so unusually large at that age she’d just gone all metal and lashed out. Afterwards there was a lot of yelling and crying, and Stella had gone back to normal; like most supers when their powers first emerge, her abilities were unreliable and relatively weak. She’d found herself put in the school gym, sternly instructed to wait there and not move, and left alone.
An hour later a man and a woman showed up and asked her some questions, and then asked her to show them her power. They’d been around for a few days talking to Stella’s father, and her teachers and other staff at the school. She’d heard that the woman was a healer who’d fixed Jack’s injuries, but she couldn’t remember anything about the man.
“Yeah,” said Stella. “A little. I remember they were really nice. I liked Agent Ghorbani a lot. Did he have powers too?”
“He was an advanced mind, but his powers let him probe into emotions more than read minds, and his telekinesis never got all that good, so he ended up with us instead of in costume. Experiencing the emotions of those he hurt was too much for him to stay in the HCP. He’s retired now unfortunately. A real loss, since he was so good with kids.”
Stella finally had a good idea of what she was there for, why the dean of the Lander HCP had suggested her to the DVA, and why she’d been so aggressively recruited by them.
“Are you recruiting me to be a super social worker?”
Miriam Foster smiled, and punched Stella gently on the shoulder. “I knew you were a smart kid from the first time I looked at your file. That’s not what we call ourselves, we’re Variant Child Services, and we serve both powereds AND supers. But yes, we at the VCS department are social workers that deal with metahuman abilities.”