It was still dark when Kevin Ryan woke up beneath the grailstone. He was naked and bald, and he sighed as he ran a hand over his bare face. For some reason, whenever he died it was the eyebrows growing back which bothered him the most.
Though the air was mild as it always was, there was a bit of wind blowing off the River, and so he decided to remain sheltered underneath the large mushroom-shaped structure for a few minutes more. He would have to move soon enough, when the lightning came to power the stones and the grails placed inside them, he didn't want to be too close. He briefly wondered what it would feel like to be electrocuted by the stones, and even more briefly considered letting it happen just to find out. He'd loved the life he'd just left, and deeply regretted losing it.
This had been the fifth time Kevin had died.
His first death, back on Earth, had been the result of a house fire at the age of fifty-seven. It had been, without a doubt, the most unpleasant one--because of the pain, and the choking smoke, but also because of the fear. He hadn't known then that it wouldn't be the end.
The second time had happened three days after Resurrection, when they'd all woken up naked and confused and hairless on the banks of the River. He'd stepped in to stop an altercation between a loud, hysterical Russian woman and a large Asian who were fighting over the food from the free grail they'd found in the stone as an example of their use. His intrusion had seen him clubbed over the head with the man's grail for his trouble and drowned in the shallows of the River.
Waking after his second resurrection, he'd soon found himself reunited with Jenny, and neither of them could believe their luck. Only, as the days and months on the River passed, their reunion soured. Finally she had made it abundantly clear that "til death do us part" firmly applied to their situation, taking off with a Chinese sailor who had come trading excess grail-goods down the River. It had stung, but they'd still had twenty good years together on Earth, and even the four on the River hadn't been terrible. Kevin wished her well.
His third death came nearly seven years later when he fell out of a boat fishing, hitting his head on the side as he went down. He was thankful not to have to remember drowning again. Unfortunately, he'd been reborn that third time into grail slavery. The slavers had kept a good watch and surprisingly good care of their captives--a grail was useless if its owner died. Still, after three months, Ryan caught his chance. The easiest means of escape was clear. Still, almost sixty years as a Catholic nearly made him reconsider. He kept the sharp splinter of wood he'd pried loose from the hut hidden in his bedding for over a week before he drew up the courage to press it through his throat.
He'd spent thirteen years in his next home, living a relatively peaceful life in a small settlement whose population was predominantly Theban Greeks from the 6th century. That had come to an abrupt end with his last death during a night-time raid. The raiders had iron weapons, proving the rumors that there was meteor metal to be had elsewhere on the River--a pointless bit of trivia to learn as he'd died defending his home.
That had led him to his current state. The sun was now beginning to rise over the great, black, tooth-edged mountains that bound in both sides of the River valley. Kevin placed his grail an empty slot on the large stone and backed off several paces. From his place on the shore he could see the town that occupied this point on the River, stretching up through the forest from which it had been built and all the way to the wall of stone at the valley's edge. Soon its inhabitants would be coming down to place their own grails in the stone for their breakfast, and to take measure of their new resurrectee. He hoped they would be friendly--or at least civilized.
As the crowd began to press down from the settlement, Kevin lifted his arms to wave, raising his voice in a shout of greeting.
"Hello! Salutoj! Khaire!"
English, Esperanto and Ancient Greek. With luck, someone in town would speak one of them.
It turned out that there were a large group of English-speakers on this part of the River, though most of them were from the late-Empire era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eventually Kevin was greeted by the settlement's leader, who claimed to be Rudyard Kipling. Kevin didn't know enough about the man to decide whether he was telling the truth, but it was polite to take people at their word until you had reason to believe otherwise.
The sound of his name drew his attention away from the meeting, the voice commanding his memory with a shock of pain.
He was younger than Kevin remembered him, as they all were in this place, and wore his hair long. He was dressed in grass robes and the necklace of spiral-fish bone at his throat named him a follower of the Second Chance. All of those details were meaningless, however, as Kevin would have recognized him anywhere.
Javier came forward and pulled him into a tight hug, and for several moments Kevin was too effected to speak.
His partner wasn't the first person from his old life that he'd met on the River, or even the second--but he was the first who Kevin had outlived. He remembered still, very, very vividly, the day Javier had taken a bullet in Chelsea--just two years after he'd married Jenny. He remembered the funeral. He remembered the grief that had lingered, far deeper than most had thought was really appropriate. He remembered bitterly the regrets that had come upon him...
Wondering how things might have gone differently... Whether, if he hadn't married Jenny, if he had been less afraid, if he'd acted on his feelings instead of running from them, whether Javier would have still been alive. In dark moments, with too much to drink and too much time for his thoughts to wander, he'd let himself wonder whether the death itself hadn't been his fault. Whether Javier had let it happen.
He and Jenny had named their first son after him. He'd insisted, and though Jenny hadn't been too happy about it she'd eventually conceded. Skinny, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Javier Ryan-O'Malley had gotten picked on at school almost from the start, and had started to go by "Jay" as early as the first grade. But Kevin and their friends had known whose name he carried, and that was enough. It had to be.
And now, more than fifty years and God only knew how many light-years from Earth, seeing him again still brought tears to Kevin's eyes. He gripped tighter, feeling the necklace dig into his sternum. He didn't care.
He had his second chance, and he wasn't going to waste it.
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
--Dylan Thomas, And Death Shall Have No Dominion