Warnings: There is a tiny amount of Czech in this story. Translations are either right in the text or at the end. Since I speak Czech poorly (and yet insist on using it!) I apologize for any mistakes in wording or grammar.
Disclaimer: I don't own it, I make no money, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Radek knelt in front of the device, its bulky form rising above him. Shifting the light to better illuminate the section he was working on, he accidentally hit the side of the machine with his wrench, the sound ringing loudly in the small space. "Promiň," he murmured under his breath, raising an eyebrow when he caught Rodney's answering frown. "Sorry," he repeated louder, this time in English.
He reached inside the contraption and made an adjustment. He and Rodney had been working with this thing all afternoon, trying to adapt it for use with a standard diesel generator. Afternoon now shifting into night, he found himself wondering why they were bothering. After all, between the naquadah and the ZPM, they had more than enough power sources for this device and others like it. And yet here they were, struggling to make a piece of Atlantis tech work with a conventional Earth power source - as Shepherd had so eloquently put it in the staff meeting, "Just in case."
Radek's attention was caught by…something. There was something…Radek took a short, careful sniff of the air in the room. This time, there was nothing but the scent of the ocean coming in off the balcony and the cool damp of an Atlantis night. He took another sniff. Yes, there it was again, beneath the scent of the ocean. How possible? "Je to Praha?" came out of his mouth unbidden, and he took another sniff, work now completely forgotten.
"What?" Rodney said from beside him, finally noticing Radek had stopped working.
"Nic." When Radek saw the look of annoyance cross Rodney's face, he had to smother a grin as he translated. "It's nothing."
Rodney's head immediately went back down and he started working again, hands busy. After a moment, he muttered, "Half the time, I swear you're doing that on purpose."
Rodney looked up. "Speaking to me in Czech." He pointed a wrench at Radek and gestured with it as he said, "On purpose," the wrench's movement punctuating each word.
As Rodney got back to work, Radek stared down at his bent head, surprised. Because to je pravda, it was true – he did do that on purpose, trying to bother the man a bit. Radek shook his head. Perhaps Rodney was as smart as he kept claiming he was.
Then it came again, and Radek paused, letting it waft over him. He sat there, eyes closed, face to the ceiling until –
"What? What?" a frustrated Rodney spat out, dropping his wrench in frustration.
Radek gave him a half smile. "Sorry, Rodney," he said, shrugging. "It smells like Spring."
"It is Spring," Rodney replied, his confusion and frustration clear in his expression.
Radek cocked his head to the side. "At home. Spring at home."
"Oh," Rodney said dismissively at first, then, "Oh," more emphatically, understanding in his eyes. He shared a half smile of his own before he started working again, his head down. "Anyway, it doesn't smell like spring." He took an audible sniff of his own. "Smells like dirt." He knocked his wrench purposefully against the nearby idle generator. "And diesel."
Radek nodded. "Yes, that's it." He started working again. There was so much here on Atlantis that was new and strange, and yet even in middle of this vast, alien ocean, there were the smells of home and Springtime, so familiar. Despite the overwhelming scents of the water, he could smell growth, and mud, and, with addition of diesel from the generator, that mix of urban and dirt that to him was home. In fact, it reminded him of…
His hand stopped, the wrench poised over the device.
Radek let the memories wash over him. He could remember everything about that spring - and nothing. And it was vivid, just there, like it happened yesterday.
This was not the first time that he'd had a flash of memory so bright, it stopped him in his tracks. Sometimes he'd be working on something in Atlantis, usually something routine, and he'd be hit by shards of memory so clear, it was as if they'd happened yesterday. But of course then there were the others, blurred by time; and yet others long since forgotten. And still others…
…Still others he wished he could forget.
He shook his head and started working again.
But this was a good one. The memory of that Spring evening - that night was one of the best of Radek's life. Like all good nights, his memory of it was a little hazy, blurred by the passage of time as well as the huge amount of drink he'd had that evening. Back then, he'd drink at any excuse, so of course that night he'd been smashed, pissed, or as his American friends have since taught him to say, "hammered". But he could remember Honza and David, arms draped across each other's shoulders, drinking the swill that passed for becherovka in this particular pub. Remember Josef and Tatiana off in the corner as they talked, facing each other, lost in their own world, the smoke from their cigarettes veiling their faces. And he and Jan, feet up with beers in hand, enjoying their drinks while watching their friends, knocking shoulders occasionally to catch the other's attention, pointing with their cigarettes and making comments on the people passing their table.
Radek could map that Spring in those memories.
He froze, the wrench hanging from hand. What made that night stand out for him? It was no more or less important than others like it. But for some reason, it was that night that stood out in his memory. That one night that he remembered so clearly. Perhaps it stood for the other nights like it, other nights spent with his friends, and that was why the memory was so important to him.
Radek looked away from the device and stared at the nearby window. In the night, he could not see out – instead, he saw his own reflection in the dark of the glass. He stared at his face as he listened to the waves pounding against the walls of Atlantis. He'd aged – not always well, he thought. He was certainly looking older. More lines. He grimaced. Less hair.
He blinked when he felt a tap on his hand. Looking up he saw Rodney there, concern and perhaps even a hint of understanding on his face.
"Why don't you take a break?"
Radek nodded. "Thank you." He put down the tool he'd been holding useless in his hand and stood slowly, stiff from long hours of working hunched over the device. He stepped to the door and out onto the balcony. Leaning out over the rail, he looked down into the blackness of the waves.
When had he gotten so old?
It was a long time ago, that night at the pub – more than twenty years, now. He'd been so damn young and unsure of both himself and his direction in life.
He remembered that he'd been hoping for a place at Univerzita Karlova, the most prestigious Czech university, located right there in his hometown of Prague. He knew that he was certainly bright enough, but had he the right connections? Certainly, admission was supposed to be based upon your grades and the entrance exam, but perhaps even more important was whether or not you came from the right sort of family. And with his father having been involved in the protests back in 1968, he was unsure…unsure.
It seems it always came down to that under communism – who was your family? Were they the "right" sort of people? Did you have the "right" connections? And cash. It paid to have the right connections, and sometimes you could pay to get them. But there he was, not even enough connections, and certainly not enough money, to get the blue book. How could he possibly get to university afterwards?
Right, right, Radek thought, leaning out over the black water. Now he remembered. He watched as the lights from the city caught the tips of the waves, turning them silver. Now he knew why that night was so important to him. It had been his last night – his last night as a young person, a person without care. The next day, that very next day, his life had changed.
At that time, on that night, he'd thought that maybe he'd study and become a playwright, or study art - something where he could do something with his life, beyond just being one of the many poor souls carrying burdens imposed on them by those with power. If lucky, and strong, maybe he could carve a place without compromising himself.
But even then, he'd distrusted his own optimism. What was the point of hoping, after all? But he almost couldn't help it. It had to get better. If not, then maybe, if he was able to get an education and skills, he could emigrate. Canada, or even the USA.
Radek leaned out over the balcony rail, inhaling the scents of Atlantis – the ocean, salt, even a hint of earth from the mainland. Hope had been a hard thing to come by in Prague in the 1980s, before the end of communism. He'd known that not all of his friends had his hope. Half the time, even he didn't have his hope. Prague had been a different place then - greyer, gloomier than now. But still, his spirit had not been crushed. And despite everything, you could get beer and good times if you knew where to go. And Radek knew where to go.
Like here, and now – in this pub, with this beer. Jan nudged Radek's shoulder and smiled, and Radek took a drag from his cigarette before he let his head roll back. He stared up into the smoke drifting along the low ceiling.
Because all of that would have to wait: his hopes, his dreams. Because tomorrow, without the blue book that would have excused him, had he been able to use connections or funds to bribe a doctor, tomorrow he started his compulsory military service. And so tonight – well, tonight was his to spend with his friends.
Jan laughed. "Best fucking night of my life," he said in English, and Radek-the-youth knew that his friend was right. Forget the future, think only of now - of the beer in his hand, and the friends by his side. He took a slow sip, smiled and laughed, and Radek-the-man, hands clenched against balcony's edge, allowed himself a similar smile before he shook his head and pushed away from the rail. His young self was right – he needed to focus on the here and now. The past was best left in the past, and he had work to do here, on Atlantis.
Radek stepped to the door and it opened before him, revealing Rodney still there, working on the device. Blinking against the brightness of the work lights, he stepped inside, nodding a greeting to the other man.
As the door shut behind him, he put aside his memories of friends and dreams, of home and youth, of pubs and beer, cigarettes and becherova. Of Prague in Springtime. He focused on this, instead: the joy he felt with the alien device under his hands, his awe at the beauty of the city around him, and the smells of Atlantis in Springtime.
Enough. He was here, now, in Atlantis. It was enough.
"Je to Praha?" means "Is it Prague?"
I play on the words "Prague Spring" in this story. Prague Spring is a term used to describe a period of time in 1968 Czechoslovakia when some of the communist's restrictions on life were lifted, and the people experienced more freedoms. The Soviets saw these changes as a threat, and they invaded. Years later, Soviet leader Gorbachev said that his own reforms owed a lot to what the Czechs tried in 1968. In fact, when asked what the difference was between Prague Spring and his own reforms, he replied, "Nineteen years."
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