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Land Before Time

"So where are you from?"

Major Peter Burke looked up, across the table, at the blond haired astronaut who was sipping coffee and watching the minutes tick by on the clock. His name was Alan Virdon, and he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the USAF. Beyond that? Pete knew precisely dick about him. Being that he - along with another man he also knew nothing about - was destined to become his closest and only friends within the next two years of ungodly training at JSC, it was probably time to make introductions.

"Jersey City." He didn't bother to stop fidgeting with the sunflower seed between his teeth, choosing to talk through it instead. Finally, he cracked it open, and dropped the shell into the styrofoam cup in front of him. "You?"

"About five hours north of here," Colonel Virdon answered. "Just south of the Oklahoma/Texas border."

"Ah, so you're used to the ungodly heat down here," Pete inferred, reaching for another seed from the red and white bag.

A slight smirk answered him. "You just happened to show up during out hottest month. Nine months out of the year, it's gorgeous. Probably like your late spring."

Pete studied him for a long moment, and dropped more shells into the cup. The man reached across the table. "Alan Virdon."

"Pete Burke." He grasped the other man's hand and shook it, then went back to his sunflower seeds as Alan sipped his coffee. "Surprised to hear yer from around here," Pete mumbled into his hand as he held one of the seeds between his teeth. "You ain't got that southern twaaang." The country music playing overhead in the breakroom was beginning to wear on his nerves. Actually, it had been wearing for about two weeks, since he'd first set foot into this state.

Alan chuckled at that. "That accent in Houston isn't bad," he reminded. "It only gets really bad when you start getting out into the smaller towns."

Smaller towns? This was a smaller town...

"Yeah, well, I tell ya one thing..." Pete dropped the shells into the cup and grabbed another handful. "I'm anxious to get the hell into space where there's no poor, good Christian souls who lost their wife and lost their dog and lost their car and lost their job and decided to write a song 'bout how it all went the way of the buffalo. Know what I mean?"

Alan smiled, and lowered his head, staring into his cup. For just a moment, Pete wondered if he might have offended him. Or worse. "So do you have a family?" Alan spoke before he could consider how to recover. "Wife? Kids?"

Pete laughed. "Me? Hell no..." He leaned back in the uncomfortable chair and his eyes drifted to the training manuals he knew he should be working on reading. He quickly talked himself out of it. "Unattached and careful to keep it that way."

Alan chuckled and Pete knew, just from the tone, that the Colonel was married. "You?" he questioned. "Kids?"

"One," Alan answered. "A son, Chris. And my wife, Sally."

Pete nodded, and shook the handful of sunflower seeds around. "Brave man."

Alan laughed again. Pete looked away. He hadn't been joking. "So how did you end up here?" Alan questioned.

"Got a lot of good grades and talked real smooth to the interviewers," Pete answered.

"No, I mean what made you decide to pursue it," Alan smirked. He knew his fair share about good grades and smooth talk.

Hiere's to the paast they can keiss mie glaass... Yeah, this music was really starting to wear on him. I hope shee's happy with hiem...

"Is this your ultimate goal?"

Pete leaned forward again and reached for more sunflower seeds. "One of them," he answered.

"Twenty-seven years old with a bachelor's in astrophysics and a masters in aeronautic engineering..."

"You've done your homework," Pete observed.

"It's all in your file."

"Yeah?" He smirked a bit. "I hate to think what else is in there. I've been too busy to look..."

"Four-point-oh GPA, graduate with honors..." Alan chuckled. "As if you've anything to hide."

"Yeah, just as long as my driving record ain't in there," Pete mumbled.

Alan chuckled. "Better for both of us if that didn't become a condition of employment..."

Silence decended on them, and Pete let it linger for a few seconds while he amused himself with his sunflower seeds. "So what about you?" he finally asked, glancing up. The man was probably in his early thirties, not all that much older but noticably more "mature". He just had that air around him. Married with a kid explained a lot. Not that Pete was doing much better, in honesty. He'd been as good as married to school and work his whole life...

Alan took another sip of coffee. "Gunnery School at Del Rio," he explained, "and Luke Air Force Bases. Got my flight training commission at Williams in Arizona, Aviation Cadet Program. Fighter pilot at Langley, F-84F and F-100. Then... University of Colorado for Aeronautics Engineering B.S., minor in chemistry, and ended up Chief of Service Engineering at Tachikawa Air Base for two years." He stared down into his coffee as he half-heartedly recounted his experience. "Once I was done there I went to Pennsylvania and flew F-101 as a maintenance flight test pilot. Met Sally there, and she went with me to California... and then here. NASA."

Pete smirked. The man's whole life in seven-point-four seconds. "Fighter pilot at Langley as soon as I was out of school. F-84F and F-100 aircraft," Pete answered. "SAC at Whiteman, in Missouri, for the past year, then came here."

"You've moved up the ranks pretty fast, Major" Alan observed.

Pete shrugged. "Early start. I was two years into college before I was old enough to enlist."

Alan raised a brow. "I was wondering about that..." he admitted.

"Oh, it's simple," Pete answered, looking down at a sunflower seed he attempted to peel apart with his fingers. "I told the rest of the world to uh... 'kiss my glass'..." Alan smiled as he realized Pete had been paying closer attention to the song playing overhead than he'd let on. "And had no life whatsoever since I was about fourteen." He dropped more empty shells into the cup.

"My sophomore year in high school, I got ahold of the government requirements for high school graduation and realized I could get outta school earlier if I home schooled and went to public school at the same time." Pete set another seed between his teeth and talked through it as he cracked it open. "So I found a program that would let me take two semesters of homeschool at once... and kept goin' to public school in the meantime. Started college when I was sixteen."

Alan chuckled. "God help the man who bets you can't do something you set your mind to..."

"My dad spent his whole life workin' as a waiter in a run-down diner," Pete answered plainly, not looking up. "And he was damn smart. I decided there was no way in hell I was gonna end up like that." He shrugged. "Let the government pay for my schooling and went to fly a plane for them in return. I win all the way around. And it got me here."

Alan nodded, still smiling slightly. Major Peter Burke, he could already tell, was not the sort of man to go down quietly. He was stubborn, and full of pride, but years of military training had taught him when to shut his mouth. It had to be that way for him to have progressed up the ranks so far so fast. He was a city boy, born and raised, and if not for his training he probably could not have survived ten minutes out in the wilderness. He was a valuable asset to those he chose to help... but God help the man he set his mind on sabotaging...

"So do you have family in Jersey City?" Alan questioned.

"Nope," Pete answered, clipped.

Alan stared at him for a moment. "No one?" he asked, disbelieving.

"Dad died last year. Mom died a long time ago. I had an uncle who committed suicide, and one who died in 'Nam. That's about it."

Alan realized he was still staring. He couldn't imagine having... no family... "No siblings?"

Pete hesitated for a long moment. Too long. Finally, he shook his head, and reached for more sunflower seeds. "No." Regardless of why he was lying, Alan didn't think it too terribly wise to question him on it. Besides, if he wasn't willingly offering the information, Alan had no business knowing it.

"Well, we really are from two different words," Alan smiled faintly.

"Big family?" Pete questioned.

"Oldest of nine."

Pete choked, eyes wide. "Nine?" Alan nodded. "Boy, yer parents were busy..."

Alan chuckled, but didn't answer. A quick glance at the clock made Pete groan, and he sat forward, folding up the bag of seeds and grabbing the cup as he stood. "Where you headed?" he asked as he took the cup to the trash.

Alan glanced to the clock and finished the last of his coffee. "Same place you are," Alan replied.

"Dr. Let-Me-Bore-You-to-Tears-With-Safety-Procedures?"

Alan smirked. "Oh, come on. He's not that bad..."

Pete shook his head. "He is when you've already read the manual and know everything he's talking about..."

"So don't read so far ahead. You look like you could use some extra sleep anyways..."

Pete gave a half-laugh. That was for damn sure...

"You wanna go get a drink after class?" Alan asked.

Pete glanced at him. "What about the wife and kid?"

Alan smiled. "I think I can spare an hour."

Pete smirked back, and opened his mouth to speak, but had to rethink his words before he spoke them. "Damn, I can't," he mumbled. He ran his hand over his short hair. "I gotta put in some flight hours in the morning. Last thing I need is to fall asleep at the controls of a T-38 jet..."

Alan chuckled as he tossed the cup away and headed for the door. "Right. Some other time then."

Pete studied him for a long moment, and felt a genuine smile cross his face for the first time in a long time. For once, there was no danger in making a friend. In fact, it was almost mandatory. He was going to be working with this guy quite a bit. "Tomorrow."

Alan paused, and looked over his shoulder. The smile was only slight, but the dark-haired man's eyes showed that it was sincere. Alan smiled back, and nodded. "Yeah," he agreed. "Tomorrow."

It was a start...

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