The next day, Stella met the leads for the other two Variant Child Services teams. Linda Anderson was tall, thin, and in late middle age. In contrast to Miriam Foster’s kindly and approachable, Agent Anderson looked stern and forbidding. She was a person who commanded respect, but was also someone you’d be safe with if you needed help.
The other team lead, Jamie Wei, was a short, cheerful, pot-bellied Chinese man with healing powers. He was happy to demonstrate his healing ability by taking away Stella’s persistent headache, so there must have been a diagnostic element to his power that Miriam lacked.
Other team members were introduced, but Stella failed to absorb more than half the names. The only one who stood out was a six foot tall man dressed like a cowboy named Bruce Ramirez, who was Linda Anderson’s team guardian. Like most of the other agents, he seemed to be playing a character to appeal to children. He even had a pile of little white cowboy hats that he’d use to ‘deputize’ kids to use their powers only to help people.
For some reason she couldn’t put her finger on, Stella found him incredibly annoying.
After introductions, the threatened ‘mountain of paperwork’ awaited Stella at what was to be her new desk in her first real job after college. Once she’d gotten through an intimidating stack of paper, she’d been issued a tablet keyed to her biometrics, and allowed access to the DVA network through a desktop computer.
Then followed many more forms and questionnaires issued by computer or tablet rather than on physical paper. It took hours, and by the end of it, Stella wondered if she hadn’t made a dreadful mistake. If all of the work was going to be like this, she vowed she’d reapply for HCP certification until they took her back, or she got too old to try any more.
At the end of the day Stella’s body and mind were in open revolt. Between the paperwork, orientations, and jet lag, Stella was ready to get back to her hotel and crash. As she pushed away from her desk Stella found herself surrounded by all three of the other team’s guardians; Frank, Bruce, and a woman from Jamie Wei’s team who was so petite and youthful in appearance she looked like a bubbly teenager. All three members of Stella’s team were also there, so Stella had the uncomfortable feeling of being ganged up on.
Miriam smiled at Stella, presumably in an attempt to be reassuring. “Stella, first I want you to know that you’ve got the job, and whatever happens this evening is not going to change that, but I did warn you that the work happens when it happens. Some weeks you’ll check into the office, catch up on a little light filing, and go home. Other days are going to be busier, like today.”
Frank gave a much more disconcerting smile, due to his extended canines. He said, “We try to avoid physical altercations. It is the law that only costumed heroes are allowed to use their powers in combat, and other supers who want to help have to become licensed in some other way like the PEERS teams. We’re in a bit of a grey area. As a guardian, you are going to be involved in physical conflicts, and you have some dispensation as a licensed agent of the DVA. Me, Bruce, and Jane are going to run you through your paces. We need to see what you can and can’t do. It’ll give us some idea of what calls to send you on, and what calls other teams should be on.”
Jane, the petite too young looking woman giggled. “Don’t worry Stella. This is going to be fun!”
Gerald, the tall angular energy absorber was obviously looking forward to the evening’s activities.. Tiffany King, who Stella still didn’t know anything about other than her name, and that she must be a teleporter, stayed in the background. She didn’t seem to care at all.
“Come on Stella,” said Miriam. “We haven’t shown you even a tiny part of the DVA campus. It’s time we show you the research building, and the sub-basements and the gym underneath it.
The gym and testing areas in the research building looked vaguely familiar. Stella assumed the facilities were the same as she trained in while attending the Hero Certification Program at Lander. Though the memories were blurry, as if from so long ago she’d forgotten all the details.
There were a few dozen people already using the gym, some apparently normal people exercising after work, and a handful of obvious supers using specialized equipment for people who could lift several tons, or run hundreds of miles an hour.
Along one wall of the main gym area were stairs leading up to platforms in front of banks of windows, and under those platforms were heavily reinforced doors like one would expect to see in front of a bank vault. Stella found her exhaustion lift a little at the prospect of a good fight.
“I could get used to this,” Stella said. “I’m always up for a good sparring session.”
“Cool your jets kid,” said Frank. “We’re not fighters, warriors, soldiers, heroes, or even police. We’re guardians, and our job is to protect people, not hurt them. When things get intense we call in hero teams, and they always come running. Our primary purpose as guardians is to prevent injury and death.
“The first thing I want,” Frank continued. “Is an assessment of your powers, and especially how fast you can move, and how much abuse you can take, so let’s see your power.”
Stella obliged by reaching into her mind for the switch that triggered her transformation into steel. Immediately she felt heavier, stronger, and tougher. Her mass increased by hundreds of pounds, and she heard her shoes creak. Stella slipped the shoes off before her increased mass could destroy them.
Frank nodded, “Interesting, and just about exactly what Monique and your HCP instructors said it would be. Too bad she couldn’t be here to have a closer look, but she had family business.”
“I know I met a Monique today,” Stella said. “But I don’t remember everyone’s face yet. Is she on your team?”
“You met her this morning, she’s on Jamie’s team with Jane here. She can analyze people’s abilities, and has a few other tricks. Now let’s hear more of what your voice is like. Tell me a joke.”
Stella was confused, “What?”
“We need to hear what you sound like in that form, and whether or not your voice would be scary to the kiddos.”
“Oh,” said Stella. “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
All six of the other Variant Child Services agents groaned.
Stella was worried, “It’s not bad is it? Nobody ever told me my voice was scary to kids! I don’t think it’s bad!”
“Your voice is fine dear, “Miriam said. “But you need to learn some better jokes.”
“OK Stella,” said Frank. “Let’s see what you can do on the weight machines. Me and Bruce will spot, and run through at the same time to see how we measure up to each other. The women’s locker room is over there, and there are tracksuits you can change into. You’re out of luck on shoes though.”
“What about Jane?”
The petite woman shrugged. “The machines aren’t the right shape for when I’m shifted, and I keep a shifter’s bodysuit on under my clothes. Come on, I’ll show you around the locker room, and then we’ll see what you can do.”
What followed was a fairly standard workout, though Stella hadn’t used the sort of weights that measured in the tons in over a year. She found that Frank and Bruce were both noticeably weaker than her, though she couldn’t remember if she was stronger than she was the last time she’d used weights like these. Tiffany had also changed into fitness wear, though she was doing laps rather than pay any attention to the proceedings.
“All right,” said Frank. “You’ve got the strength to handle holding down most of our cases, but we do need to see what you can take. We’ve got testing room three for the next hour or so. Just be prepared for there to be an audience in the observation deck. The VCS staff who aren’t on intervention teams always take an interest when we do stuff like this, and occasionally word spreads to other departments. The boffins upstairs always take an active interest.”
“Don’t you have my HCP records? Don’t they tell you that stuff?”
Frank waggled his hand in the air to signal something vague. “Ish. The how’s and why’s of people’s abilities are a closely guarded secret, even after they give up on the HCP. And you’ve moved on a bit in the last two years. Your recent emphasis on practical self defense is different from the sort of brutal combat skills they train heroes in.”
“Besides,” said Jane. “We like a good scrap as much as you seem to, but the job means we rarely cut loose. We need to practice as much as time allows.”
Stella nodded, and she, Frank, Bruce, Jane, and Gerald all passed through the heavily reinforced vault-like door to testing room three.
The room was an empty cube sixty feet on a side with the observation windows halfway down one of the sixty foot high walls. Miriam waved from beyond one of the windows, and gave Stella a thumbs up. Stella noticed that there were indeed a lot more people up there than just Miriam.
“OK Stella,” said Frank. “This next part isn’t going to be anything new to you, but it’s not going to be pleasant either. We need to find out how much you can take. Jane?”
Jane had stripped down to a bodysuit of the shimmery material that adapted for shifters, but it was pink instead of black. Her change was much slower than Stella’s, so it took her several seconds to change forms. When her transition was finished, Stella felt a joyful grin spread across her face at seeing a cherished childhood memory come to life.
“Oh wow,” said Stella. “I always loved Babar when I was little. Kids must adore you.”
“Thanks Stella,” she said. “It goes over well with most adults too. It’s one of the reasons me and Frank elected not to be heroes, seeing our shifted forms in action as heroes would have emotionally scarred dozens or hundreds of kids. Can you imagine children seeing Queen Celeste kill or cripple someone, or even worse be killed?”
Jane’s voice in her transformed state, which did indeed look like a humanoid elephant, was deeper and more resonant, but clearly that of a woman. Some tech genius had done something clever with Jane’s bodysuit, because it changed into a pink dress when Jane transformed.
Stella’s joy at seeing Jane’s transformed state left her totally unprepared for when the huge elephant woman punched her with the force of a truck. There must have been an intercom system on the observation deck, because Stella clearly heard several people groan or exclaim in sympathy as Stella few backwards two dozen feet, slammed into the wall behind her, and fell flat on her face.
Stella was immediately back on her feet and advancing on the elephant woman. “What the hell was that?”
Gerald stepped in front of Stella and shook his head. Stella tried to push past her team member, and found herself unable to move him. She pushed harder and bounced back a little. Gerald snorted and rolled his eyes, and then said the worst thing possible.
“You hit like a girl.”
Stella braced and put everything she had into a punch leveled at Gerald’s gut. She remembered he was an absorber, but she also knew that all absorbers had limits, and if she hit hard enough something would get through.
Stella forgot that Gerald was able to absorb and emit simultaneously, and that he had least one extra year of HCP training over her. Gerald blocked Stella’s punch with one arm, and threw that energy back through his other hand, sending her hurtling towards the ceiling with the redirected energy of her own punch.
Stella got a good look at a couple dozen people behind the observation window at the top of her upwards journey, and then began to descend back down towards Gerald, who was clearly waiting for her. She flailed and thrashed in an effort to change her trajectory, or make herself a hard target for him to hit.
Gerald stepped aside, let Stella’s head slap into the palm of his left hand, and redirected all the force of her fall sideways out his right hand. Stella shot across the room as if fired from a cannon and impacted the wall again. This time she was a little winded and dizzy, but got back on her feet almost as quickly. She decided to grab and squeeze Gerald instead of punching him when something big and brown smacked into her from the side, and sent her bowling across the floor.
The first coherent thought in Stella’s head after that was: “Frank really is a giant, cute, floppy looking dog.”
Then the massive mongrel pounced on Stella, pinned her to the ground, and clamped its massive jaws around her arm and began to bite down. This at least didn’t bother Stella, as there was no way teeth of bone would penetrate her metal skin. She wasn’t entirely pinned, and managed to lash out with a kick. Frank grunted, growled, and then stood up with Stella’s arm still clamped in his jaws.
Stella had just enough time to regret her decision when Frank whipped her around by the arm like a ragdoll. Frank released Stella after a good minute of thrashing to send her skidding to a stop at Bruce Ramirez’s feet.
The cowboy held up his hands, took a step back, and in a distinct Southern drawl said, “Woah slow down girl, I ain’t in this fight. This is just to see how much abuse you can take.”
Something somewhere deep in Stella’s brain went red. The stupid hat and the accent just got on her nerves, and she lashed out, again going for the gut punch. The DVA cowboy proved that he had an impressive level of damage resistance by absorbing the force of her punch easily. He then demonstrated an impressive mastery of martial arts by grabbing Stella’s arm, and using it as a lever to throw her to the ground, and put her into an unbreakable submission hold.
“What the Hell lady?” Bruce was clearly upset. “Y’all got a problem with me just tell me off. No need to be punching a man.”
Stella’s growled in pain as her headache clamped her skull in a vise of pure agony. “Hate… That… Stupid… Little… Hat…”
Stella’s brain erupted into fire, and she lapsed into unconsciousness.