Chapter 24

                “I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but that actually wasn’t as bad as I expected.” Alice was as surprised as anyone to hear the words leave her mouth; she’d gone into the zombie film expecting more cheap effects and half-hearted plot. And while the effects certainly weren’t stellar by modern standards, the plot had managed to make up for it. After so many terrible films screened by Nick, she’d nearly forgotten that the genre could have actual good movies.

                “It was interesting,” Mary agreed. “And I like that they didn’t try to shoehorn in a Super angle. Seems like most of the modern ones like to use deranged or mutated Supers as the default monsters.”

                “That’s a modern trend,” Shane told her. “The older films usually pretend Supers don’t even exist. If they were in them, too many of the problems would be easily solved. Unless you make them the bad guy, of course.”

                The conversation continued as they made their way through the lobby, catching the tail end of a crowd from another showing as it was bottle-necking at the door. At first, no one was quite certain what the hold-up was; they merely took it to be a human traffic-jam. However, as they drew nearer to the outside, they began to make out a small group of people stopping those exiting and thrusting clipboards toward them.

                “It ain’t even an election year, what the hell are these people out campaigning for?” Roy said, peering over the heads of those in front of him as they made their way forward.

                “They’re… oh. Well, this is going to be unpleasant.” Mary had tilted her head as she tried to single out the thoughts of those with the clipboards, and a sour look appeared on her face when she found them. Moments later, a similar expression came over Alex, though his was tinged with a bit of anger. Neither could say anything, as they were surrounded on all sides by civilians. All they could do was trust the self-control of their friends.

                “Take back Lander!” It was impossible to tell which of the people this first call, or most of the ones that followed, came from. The group was all young, likely students at the college from their age range, and wearing identical home-made t-shirts with the letters “HCP” and a line drawn through them. Their cries rang through the open air as people made their way out of the multiplex, assaulting the ears of everyone in their vicinity.

                “Get rid of the HCP!”

                “Make Lander safe for humans!”

                “Sign our petition to kick out the HCP.”

                “Don’t let Supers draw us into another attack.”

                At the last one, Nick noticed Alex’s fist clench up, and he put a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder. Together, they plowed past the group, ignoring them completely as they called out for more people to join their cause. The sole consolation to their experience was that almost every other person in the crowd was doing the exact same thing, brushing aside the unwanted advances of these advocates without so much as acknowledging them. Unfortunately, it was not a unanimous sentiment, as some did pause to talk with them, and even sign their petitions.

                One particularly bold boy with curly blonde hair bounded over to the group and thrust a clipboard toward Alice, who was at the edge. “Good evening, would you like to sign our petition to force the HCP off campus, making Lander safe for the rest of us?” She found his cheerful tone disconcerting, since it was paired with such a toxic sentiment. Still, Alice was a Subtlety major, now officially, and she betrayed nothing of how much she’d like to hurl him in the air as she reached forward.

                “Gladly,” Alice said, yanking the clipboard away with a firm grip. Her own smile was dazzling, charming the young man so much he didn’t even notice what she was writing until she handed his petition back to him.

                “Thank you very much, Miss…” He glanced at the clipboard for the first time, and his cheery demeanor seemed to falter. “… ‘Go Fuck Yourself’. Hey, this is an official document, you can’t-”

                His voice fell away as Alice merely turned and continued walking, no longer deigning to even acknowledge his existence. For a brief moment, he started forward, as if he were going to have his say regardless, but Vince and Roy repositioned themselves behind her. While neither made so much as an aggressive step in his direction, their stares and well-trained bodies made it clear that he was courting violence, and if he tried hard enough he might snare it. They were technically neutered in this situation, but the would-be activist didn’t know that, and moments later he rejoined his own group as they shouted at more passersby.

                “I thought Dean Blaine said the students were on our side,” Vince said once they were finally away from the crowd, heading toward their cars.

                “The student body has somewhere upward of thirty thousand people in it. You’re going to have some dissenting opinions in a group that large,” Nick told him. “Luckily, it looks like the dicks are in the vast minority. Pretty much no one was giving them the time of day, which is probably why they’ve had to start staking out party events to have even a shot at getting more followers.”

                “It is an unfortunate truth that there is no such thing as universal adoration,” Chad said. “Even should we graduate, there be will people who hate us. Some for what we do, or fail to do, others for merely having the gifts we were born with. This, just as much as the danger and violence, is part of what it means to be a Hero.”

                “You pretty much stole the words right out of my mouth,” Shane said. “Though I’m curious how you already know that.”

                “My mother was… not always supportive of my career choice,” Chad admitted. “She insisted if I go down this path, I would have to know exactly what I was getting myself into.”

                “Look, don’t let those shitheads drag down what has been an otherwise fun night.” Nick turned around to face the group, walking backwards without so much as bothering to glance over this shoulder. “That’s exactly what they’d want to happen. Instead, let’s keep the train rolling. There’s a new spot over on Main Street that mixed a fifties-style diner with a bar. They even have milkshakes, alcoholic and boring. What’s say we hit that up and forget all about those fuckwads?”

                While the group did eventually agree to follow Nick to the next destination, none of them were quite able to forget about the unexpected detour in their evening. It weighed on their minds, along with the one question none of them had actually dared to ask out loud:

                If those petitions got traction, could the HCP be kicked out of Lander?