Jump to content

Mutants & Masterminds: The Unlikely Prophets - Prologue: Norman Yan - Grave Matters


Recommended Posts

You only live twice. Once when you are born and once when you look death in the face.

- Ian Fleming

It was a new day.

Chicago was a dying town, in some ways. Not dead yet, but on its way. The infrastructure was substandard and the Order didn't see much point in fixing it up, so people moved away when the opportunity arose. For whatever reason, allocations for allowed births didn't favor the city. It was getting older day by day.

The living didn't concern Norman Yan very often, however.

He rose from his bed, his thoughts already full of what he'd have to do for poor Mister Desmond, who had passed in his sleep. The ones that went peacefully were easiest. Less to dress up. No scars to close, no blood to wipe away. Less challenge, even if there was less reward. The times that he got a dead man looking like he was merely having a nap were the best times. They gave comfort to the living, to see that line between the living and the dead become murky instead of stark. It was easier to handle.

The funeral home wasn't far away. He could walk from his house and often did. If pressed, he could probably pick out a landmark along the way, but really: the world where things still moved and breathed, seemed to pass Norman by.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The grime encrusted street lamps were just flickering off with the grey morning light as Norman shuffled out into the cold. In a previous life they had been painted a cheerful, lucky, red color in keeping with the Chinese motifs that typified the neighborhood. Now the paint was dingy and flaking. The once vibrant Chinatown today had much in common with a sad, abandoned theme park.

He had never seen the neighborhood in its heyday, but felt much closer to the bright, bustling markets of his parents' stories and his imagination than the grim solitude he encountered every morning. It was those happier images he found himself superimposing on the bleak cityscape as he meandered toward his somber place of work. The rare souls he passed on the street could only wonder at what he had to smile about.

Norman had a vague impression that a cheerful mortician was in poor taste. He also had an impression that anything lighter than grim resolve was inappropriate for the Order's regime, but he refused to give them the satisfaction. His efforts to appear appropriately solemn were reserved for the living. His actual clientele on the other hand, while demanding respect and sobriety, had not yet complained about his pleasant disposition. He chose to take their continued silence as an endorsement of his work and this encouraged him to attend to their final business with all the more care.

The gentle morning chill was replaced by the directed humming chill of the coolers as he finished his walk and made his way into the back room of Jiang's Mortuary. Like so many things, Mr. Jiang had been before Norman's time. He made a point of nodding respectfully at the photo of the smiling old man which was the sole adornment of his workspace. Mr Jiang's was usually the only oversight he required. His co-workers barely knew he existed, and this was a consideration for which he was grateful. The funerary services industry could attract some strange folks.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

After an hour, Mister Desmond was ready.

It took a little more work than he'd expected. Mister Desmond had a skin condition that had gotten worse after death - his skin flaked a lot, and too much makeup would make him look inauthentic. So Norman had to be careful to make him still look alive, but not entirely healthy. It was a tricky line to straddle. He did it better than most.

Norman nodded appreciatively. The funeral was tomorrow and everything would be in place.

As he went to get a drink, the door buzzer rang. Frowning, Norman opened the door. A man smiled down at him - he was tall. Very tall. He wore the type of suit a civil servant wore. "Mister Yan?"


"I'm Kevin Moore, and - " He sniffed. "Pfuh. Oy. That's a smell I won't miss. I'm from the City Magistrate's office. I'm here to tell you, this place and the graveyard behind it? They're being shut down."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Norman regarded Kevin curiously for a moment. Dealing with living people was not part of his job description and he wanted to be sure he was fully up to speed before responding. After a bit too long staring up in confusion he attempted to return the man's smile and mostly failed.

His response was careful and deliberate, "I appreciate the information. But the grave yard isn't full yet. And people are still dying. Practically every day."

It occurred to him that this was probably not new information to the administrative apparition. His attempted smile was replaced by a look of dawning concern.


In the back of his mind he felt something begin to crumble as he realized with self-recriminating shock that he had allowed himself to become rather attached to his work. That had never been the plan. It wasn't the sort of work one wanted to become attached to. He found himself stepping protectively in front of the operating room door, as if the ghoulish functionary might begin decommissioning the place by tossing Mr. Desmond out on the sidewalk.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"Orders from the top. The very top."

The particular intonation that Kevin Moore lent the word gave Norman pause. "The Druid, specifically. Orders are that all dead cadavers are to be recycled. Too much biomass in one area throws her environmental balancing act out of order and she'd decided to make Chicago the first town with this new policy. The Magistrate's in full agreement - "

"Recycled?" One of the other employees stared at Moore blankly.

"Well. Yes. They'll be spread throughout in, uh, in parks and forests, and..." Moore trailed off, with the expression of someone who realizes that what sounded like a fantastic idea in their head is not being received as such by their audience.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A vision of his stoic clients being unceremoniously fed into mulching machines flashed across Norman's mind's eye. The dawning concern rapidly congealed into a single white-hot point of horror. He gritted his teeth and tried to keep his cool. Kevin was just the messenger, after all.

"No, no. I'm afraid its more than 'biomass' we put to rest here. When is this supposed to go into effect? We need to talk to the Magistrate."

He glanced at the other mortuary workers present, and at Mr. Jiang's portrait, to be sure everyone was in agreement.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"Uh, it goes into... effect... next month... wait, the Magistrate? You want to take this to Terry Fienne? Look, Mister... Yan, was it? Yan. This goes higher than City Magistrate or State Magistrate or even Country Magistrate. This is the Druid we are talking about. You know, the woman empowered by Mother Earth herself? Wears a lot of leaves? Is single-handed keeping all of us from falling into an environmental abyss?"

The worst part was that Kevin Moore didn't sound like he was reading off a script at the end. He believed what he was saying about the Druid. "Look, you get compensation for the property. You get employment insurance. But if you take this to Fienne you are going to bring a lot of thunder down on everyone in here. You might... look, I shouldn't say anything, but you might make things harder for the living. Come on. We're talking about people who are long gone."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It was the threat that did it. The Order ending things he cared about was nothing new, that he could almost accept gracefully. The thought of being punished for trying to do something about it, however futile, was too much. He all but snarled.

"Those 'long-gone' people built this city. They deserve their rest. My grandparents are in that cemetery. My own plot is in that cemetery. We want to be remembered with more than a piece of paper in a filing cabinet and a bucket of compost."

Norman paused to straighten himself up and and tried to pull himself back on to the rails. He spoke more slowly, but he had already taken his leap and there was no going back.

"I know who the Druid is. If this needs to get back to her so be it. Environmental regulation is important, but so is remembering where we came from. Who brought us here." Then he lied brazenly, mostly for the benefit of his own guttering hope, "I'm sure the Order will be willing to consider a compromise when the cultural significance of the issue is brought to their attention."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Kevin Moore bristled. "Tell you what. Norman Yan, right? I'll make sure Terry Fienne knows your name. I'll make sure he knows exactly what you said. I'll repeat every word. I'm sure he will give a weighted and careful consideration for your concerns like he has for so many others. But just in case he doesn't? You might want to look into new jobs. All of you. Have a good one."

Moore left. Norman looked around at the others. No one spoke and no one met his gaze - except one, a young woman with thick glasses and freckles, who was new to the job. Susan Pine was her name.

"I hate it when they just... just DO that."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

To his chagrin, Norman felt like he was looking down into the pit of his own grave. He did not like to find himself perpetuating such negative funerary similes. His mind's eye showed his co-workers lining up behind him to be shoved into the same abyss. And there were his grandparents, and Mr. Jiang, and Mr. Desmond... Then he realized it wasn't a grave at all, it was a mulching machine.

And that was it, he couldn't live with himself and let this go. He was going to have to protest against The Order, and not just The Order but an order from the top of The Order. The closest to a winning scenario would be if his best efforts were too insignificant to draw any real attention.

He reluctantly let Susan's voice draw him back to reality, "Do? Oh, yes. That's just how they operate. Anyway, it's still a month out. It might not be too late for something to change." He sighed, "I'm sorry about going off like that. I don't want to put any of you on the line over this."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"You should go have a walk in the graveyard. It always makes you feel better. I can cover for you."


Norman took her advice. It wasn't helping today, though. He walked down rows of headstones, carefully minding all the names. He stopped next to Mister Desmond's coming plot, and sighed heavily. He looked next door at the plot of Alexander De Vasch.

There was no fighting City Hall. He knew that. But he couldn't accept it. Everyone here deserved better, even if they had no voice... and really, throughout history, wasn't it always the voiceless who were the first to go into the mulching machine?

Across the street, a few gang members stopped. Their radio was blaring, in that irritating heavy-bass way that always made his stomach tighten. It was Radio Free Order, which played all the sufficiently edgy music needed to convince people they were being sexy rebels by listening to it, so that they wouldn't actually have to do anything -

Then the signal seemed to scramble, as if the signal was interrupted. There was silence. With a start, Norman realized that it wasn't just silence on the radio. There was silence all around him. And no one else seemed to notice.

Attempts to speak didn't seem to work. Norman felt a tightness in his throat. And then, a new voice - the voice of the Order's economic and sociological engine, the Mathemagician - spoke.

who are you?

Then there was a song.

" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344">

To call this song 'haunting' did no justice. It seemed to stop the whole world. Nothing was frozen - the wind blew, the sun shone - but the whole planet seemed to take a collective breath. No one around Norman noticed the song, just as no one around him seemed to notice the Mathemagician either.

The song lasted a few seconds. It also lasted forever. Time lost all meaning in its embrace. The song crescendoed, and built, and crashed to its climax, moving mountains with notes. It faded away, leaving him feeling different. Like everything in the living room of his soul was moved six inches out of place.

why are you here?

The Mathemagician's final words hung in the air. The world started up again.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Norman stopped cold and replayed the last few moments in his head. He looked at his hands and slowly brought them up to his face. He took a deep breath. He looked up at the sky. Supernatural music and a feeling of spiritual displacement struck him as possible warning signs of death, but to his mild relief he was still alive. It was a running joke around the office that if he died he might not notice and come in to work anyway, so he felt it was prudent to check.

He was not the sort of person who could tell himself something had not happened when it obviously had. This had never been a particularly useful trait under the Order's regime. However, now was the first time he had ever felt tempted to push himself into denial and go about his business as if everything was normal. He resisted the urge.

He was reluctant to give much heed to the Mathemagician, but he found himself focusing on the projected questions. Who was he? Why was he here?

"I am Norman Yan. I take care of dead people." He whispered, he hoped, to himself. He found his words reassuring. He knew they were true.

He stared out over the headstones, from the nearby, recent, tidy tombs to the ornate crumbling edifices at the back of the cemetery. It was a few moments before he spoke again. "I don't want to forget." He was not sure where those words came from. As he thought about it though, that seemed a very good answer to the second question.

The more difficult implicit questions had no such simple answers; Why did the Mathemagician care? What had just happened?

He began wandering aimlessly through the cemetery, indulging in a moment of peace before he resumed worrying about The Druid, the Mathemagician and the Music.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"It's admirable."

Norman stopped in mid-step. He turned slowly around, and saw something impossible.

A man stood there, in a funeral suit. That wasn't remarkable, as this was, in fact, a cemetary. What was remarkable was that he was transparent - he stood in front of a gravestone and Norman could make out the name on it. Alexander De Vasch.

What was even more remarkable was that Norman remembered Alexander De Vasch, because it was the very first time he'd laid someone to rest.

"Not wanting to forget, I mean. It's admirable. So many people do. They want to forget about the Gap, about all those things I myself can barely remember... it's like there's a scar on history that won't heal. Alexander De Vasch, by the way. I suppose it was a matter of time before you came here - "

Alexander looked down at the open grave. He pointed at Norman's own body, which had fallen in the pit.

"Sorry, son. It appears you've bit the - what?" Alexander squinted. "That's not... possible.."

Norman looked down at his own body. The chest was still rising and falling. Norman could see his lips moving, as his mother had assured him he did when sleeping.

"You're alive." Alexander looked at Norman with shock. "You're here... with the dead, like us... and you're still alive."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Norman tried very hard to be afraid. Screaming and running in terror would, at least, give him a reasonable course of action for the circumstances. As it was he stood awkwardly, glancing between the dead man and his own reportedly living body, the latter with somewhat greater concern.

His terror had failed him so he next wanted to be incredulous. He wanted to say 'What are you doing here!?' or 'What's going on?!' or maybe even 'This can't be happening!' but he just couldn't bring himself to. It was all so clear. Mr. De Vasch was a ghost. He was having an out of body experience, or a very convincing hallucination. Either way, he saw no excuse to get too worked up about it.

He held his hand up. It was transparent and misty around the edges, not quite real. He could see the apparition through it, and the mortuary through him in the distance.

It occurred to him that he was being rude. "Mr. De Vasch?" He paused, surprised to 'hear' his voice come without breath. "You're looking well, all things considered." He offered feebly. "You're sure I'm not dead?"

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"I'm very sure. You can tell these things. Everyone! Norman Yan's here! And he isn't dead!"

There was silence for a long moment. Then they came.

Norman recognized many of them as people he'd laid to rest, rising out of the ground where they'd laid. Many more had gone before his time. Some were so clear they could be people, while others were... blurry. Indistinct. One by one they rose from the graves, and flocked to where Alexander was.

Norman heard his name whispered in staccato rythm, amongst the departed around him.

"You're alive but here. Unbelievable. You travelled into the dead space, Norman. Like an astronaut. Except not into space, but into... wherever here is." Alexander beamed. "You can tell them we're here. Even after we're gone, we're here! Mostly here. Some of us - " He gestured towards a formless bit of smoke. "Have all but transitioned to the next step. This is a sort of... stepping stone, Norman. Where we lay down the baggage of our lives before moving on."

"Is it true? Are they going to destroy this place?" It was a child that asked this. She had pulled a spit-swathed thumb out of her mouth to do so.

"Lana, it's all right."

"But if they destroy it - "

"We'll be fine. Something like that can't hurt us. We're beyond that." Alexander sighed. "It'll just make it harder to move on. When people come here, Norman, they come to a place that, mentally, to them is a place between life and death. Mentally makes all the difference for people. You know that. You're not just dressing a body, you're helping the living let go. It makes all the difference for us. A place like a graveyard is easier for us to touch your world, and it makes it easier for us to work through what holds us back..."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Norman stared, awed at the mass of ghostly faces. He tried to pick out those that were familiar. He realized on some level that he had always known they were there. There had always been more to the graveyard, any graveyard, than stands of pretty stones. But seeing them, hearing that his work meant something on the other side as well, seeing that there was an other side, gave him a sense of peace. Mr. De Vasch's words stuck with him. He wondered if maybe this was how astronauts felt when they saw the Earth from space. The difference between knowing or feeling something and seeing it was immense. These thoughts were almost immediately overridden by a number of more pressing concerns.

"I'm sorry, this is all just a bit..." He wanted to say overwhelming. He felt like it should be overwhelming. But they were just the dead. He saw them every day, in a somewhat different capacity. "...surprising. I don't know how I got here. I might be having a stroke down there right now and joining you all here for good. But if I can get back, believe me, I will tell them. And I'll do everything in my power to keep this place intact for all of you." He did not add, but thought rather prominently, '...and if I'm not careful about it I really will be joining you permanently'.

His next thought was prompted by the realization that if he weren't breathing his last, he could wake up at any moment and the sudden recollection of several summers worth of campfire ghost-stories, "So... is there anything I can help any of you with in the land of the living? Messages to be delivered?"

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"You can tell my daughter that I love her very much." Alexander De Vasch coughed. "I wasn't that happy when she moved to Arizona, but I shouldn't have let it come between us. Her name is Sharatur De Vasch. "

He looked around, as if assessing agreement. "You can stop the Order from paving over this place, yes. I have a feeling that... just as surely as you came here, you can take parts of this place with you when you leave. Things that the dead value strongly, I reckon, will resonate the most. You'll need all that we can lend you if you're planning on taking them on. If there's anyone else like you, you might want to get their help."

A man spoke up. He was a young-looking Chinese man, no older than twenty... but when he spoke, it was with a thick accent. "When I was cut down in service to the local gangs they buried me with the stock of my gun. You can have it if you help clean up the local underworld. Keep kids from making the same dumb mistakes I did."

"I was buried with my gas mask. It saved my life during the War. It's yours." The serviceman gave a salute. "Just take those Order bastards to town."

"When I crashed my plane overseas, they shipped me back with the steering yoke. I don't know what good it'll do you, but it's down there in my coffin." The airman shrugged. "The graveyard's enough for me. I just stick around to keep everyone company."

"And if you need us directly, well... you jsut call, son. On any of us. We'll get the word out, to all the others waiting in transition, all over the world. We'll tell them about the first living man to set foot in the afterlife. Norman Yan, the astronaut of the necrosphere. No, even better. Norman Yan, the Necronaut."

The word 'Necronaut' bounced across spectral lips. Norman found that, yes... he liked the sound of it.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

He wasn't exactly sure how the ghostly presents might help him, but he wasn't about to refuse them. "Well, I certainly appreciate the offers. I guess I'll be needing a shovel?" ...'and a moonless night', he thought to himself.

Norman found himself, finally, entering less comfortable territory. It was almost a relief to have some genuine concern arise from his encounter with the dead. Making a long distance call to Arazona (he was pretty sure it would be inappropriate to deliver a message from beyond the grave via collect call) would be simple enough. Taking down the order, though... taking on gangs and holding back Order sanctioned wrecking crews, that was sort of daunting. This wasn't just getting beaten to a pulp and locked up (not necessarily in that order) for holding a picket sign. This was going to get serious. The thought of abdicating his new duties did not cross his mind. He just hoped his lack of confidence didn't show on his own transparent face.

In fact, it did not show very much at all. He was surprised to find that while his brain had been focused on the various unfortunate potential outcomes of carrying out his promises to the departed, his mouth and his sense of curiosity were taking advantage of the opening.

"Wait, wait, you can talk to each other anywhere? How? Are you stuck here in the graveyard, or is it just more comfortable for you? What sort of things do you need to unload to pass on anyway? Where do you go...?" He balled his fists, giving pause to the rising tide of questions. "I think I'm going to need to learn a lot more about how the afterlife works." He smiled despite himself as he added internally, 'if I'm going to be the "Necronaut"'.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Alexander De Vasch looked to the three that had spoken. Without a word, they sunk back into the ground.

"It's complicated. This graveyard and places like it, is where your world is most like ours, and where ours is most like yours. Moving away from places like this, things get difficult to describe. We don't have brains to organize our thoughts, but we don't have brains to limit them either. That's about as best as I can put it. So we aren't bound here... but it's here, and places like here, that we're closest to who we were when we lived. We'll all leave and get the word out, Norman. They'll know you're coming."

The three of them came back up, bearing in turn: the stock of a Tommy gun, the steering yoke of a plane, and a gas mask. They held them out to Norman.

"T think if you take these across with you when you go back to your body... one way or another, the physical parts will find their way there."

"As for what we need to unload? Depends. Some of us don't need to unload anything, we just like to stick around. For others, it's truths they wanted to tell, things they wanted to do, before the big clock ran out. As for what's after this? Well, we don't hear back very much. What we get are conflicting accounts. I'm sure there's something – it's not too big a leap of faith, considering, you know, I'm dead and still talking." He smiled. "As for how this between state works, well, like I said before. The places it's easiest to touch your world are also the places where it's most like your world, so there's little to explain. The further away it gets, the more impossible it gets to explain, if that makes any sense..."

"Hnn." The noise had come from Norman's body in the open grave. Norman felt a pulling sensation, drawing him towards the grave.

"Ah, I think you're getting called back. Good luck, Norman. And enjoy it while you got it, because it's too late here..."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Norman held the three strange gifts rather awkwardly, neither the human body nor its spiritual equivalent had been designed to wield such a weird assembly of objects. He managed a smile, "Again, thank you. I'll make good use of them."

He was reasonably sure they would be good conversation starters if nothing else. 'Indeed,' he would say to his cell-mate in the secret Order detention center, 'each of these was a ghost's most prized possession.' And then he would make a crack about ghosts and possession, but his cell mate wouldn't care on account of being crazy and heavily sedated.

He was startled out of this wry rumination as he began physically (spiritually?) floating back toward his body. He gave a final look out over the graveyard's citizens. "I will protect this place. And I will remember you. Before I'm through, everyone will."

The world exploded into solid reality around him. And then he inhaled. Using his physical lungs suddenly held an exotic charm. His nostrils were filled with the soothing scent of freshly dug earth. A soft rain tapped comfortably on his face rather than falling through it. He was lying on his back in the open grave. A deep melancholy filled his heart, as usually happened with the end of the very best of his daydreams. He was back in reality. He had passed out in an open grave, probably from stress. His lab-coat would need to be bleached again. The Druid was still planning on firing him and, eventually, turning him and everyone he knew into mulch. The past few minutes had been nothing but a... a...

Norman stopped breathing again.

The rotting, splintered stock of an old Tommy gun rested on his chest. With it was the decaying remnants of a WW-I era gas-mask, now little more than a few elastic strands and rubber fringes holding the cracked dark glass lenses together. The rust-pitted, slightly bent steering yoke of some sort of airplane sat in a small puddle by his side.

He shot to his feet, cradling the precious artifacts in his arms. Over the edge of the grave he could just make out hazy humanoid shapes descending back into the earth, presumably to rest a little easier for the time being. At least one turned to wave at him before vanishing.

The Necronaut smiled and waved back.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There was something strange about the objects. Necronaut noticed only after scrambling out of the grave as he shambled muddily back toward the mortuary. Each had a fuzzy sort of aura that was pretty clearly not actually there in the conventional sense. He focused on the gas mask, which was really more like a horrible pair of goggles with masses of ancient tattered rubber still clinging in places. He rotated it in his hands, stretching the material, transfixed by how the aura moved and shifted. Then he twisted the mask just right. It felt almost like pulling the prize out of a cereal box.

He was holding the ancient bits of glass and rubber, but he was also holding a perfect shining new gas mask superimposed over it. It flickered and crackled mono-chromatically, as if it were projected right out of a WW-I movie. The spectral object was transparent, but just solid enough that he could touch it. He slid the mask over his face. He had a vague inkling of what wearing a real gas-mask should be like, and this was not it. It was more like putting on a security blanket. Whatever the mask had been, however it had functioned in 'life' all that remained of it now was the concept of safety and fresh air. When he breathed in it smelled like the sea.

Necronaut quickly removed the mask and twisted it again. It collapsed in on itself so just the physical bits and the faint aura of otherworldly potential remained. He secreted it away in his pocket, reasoning that now was not the time to start testing the gun or the, he almost laughed as he thought of it, air-plane...

Everyone in the back room stared as he stepped inside. He was disheveled, muddy, soaked and sporting an expression that sat somewhere between confident purpose and barely-controlled mania.

He spoke enthusiastically, not giving himself time to second-guess his course, "Miss Pine, I would be very grateful if you would inform Big Ed that I need to take an indefinite leave of absence."

Eddy Sloan, the current owner of Jiang's Mortuary, had wisely determined that 'Big Ed's Mortuary' did not have quite the same ring to it as that given the establishment by its founder.

"It would be good for him to say it was his idea. It could make things easier if City Hall decides to take my earlier comments seriously. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with all of you and I hope I have the opportunity to do so again. Take good care of them."

He didn't wait for the questions or protests he secretly hoped his announcement would generate. He just offered an almost-jovial wave at his co-workers and a respectful nod toward Mr. Jiang's portrait, then he turned toward the door with haste. He had a phone-call to make...

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...