Dr. Norton had explained it to him, making sure he understood. He'd taken Alex down to the shipping room, showing him the specially constructed crate, the soft foam inserts molded around his frame. "About fourteen hours flight time," Norton had said, lapsing into silence, so Alex could figure it. Fourteen hours in the crate, systems shut down, off, for all intents and purposes not existing, until they touched ground in Detroit.
"Or you could fly like a passenger, in the main cabin."
Alex had tilted his head, considering, weighing options, trying to find the factor that was missing, the one that would make the choice simple, logical, even as he thought that he'd never been one to worry about logic and math before.
"We leave tomorrow," Norton had said, gently. "You can decide then."
He had decided, a quick impulse, as he approached the shipping crate the next morning. It had seemed the logical choice but as the crate's shadow fell over his face, he balked, freezing, backing out. The crate...looked too much like a casket, and he had the horrible, gut-twisting image of arriving in Detroit, rolling off a cargo conveyor like the dead.
It was too much. He didn't want it. He couldn't. No.
"What's the matter, Tin Man, afraid of the dark?" Mattox had rolled his eyes, starting one of his cutting remarks before Norton had silenced him with a glare that Alex had never seen on the doctor's face before.
"Let's go into the cabin," Norton said, lowering the clearscreen he'd been holding, cued up to Alex's shutdown code, one hand coming to guide Alex by the elbow. Alex let himself be led, moving slowly up the rickety rolling stairs up to the passenger compartment, his weight shifting the stairs with each step. It was almost a relief to enter the cabin, and he waited while Norton fussed, lifting the armrest between two of the seats, before gesturing for Alex to take a seat. Alex had grown accustomed to Norton fussing, though he'd told him dozens of times that the armor was rated for high impact ballistics; he didn't need to be treated so cautiously.
But it seemed to feed some need in Norton's own psyche. Alex wouldn't know: he'd been a detective, which was a very different calling from a doctor. Healing had never been his priority. So he let Norton fasten a seatbelt over him, snugging it low on his hips, careful to keep the buckle from scraping Alex's chassis, though Alex doubted it would hold if it was needed.
Norton patted his hand, the mechanical one, before moving to take a seat across the aisle. It was a comfort Alex wasn't sure he could explain to be able to look over and see Norton, not in his labcoat, but laying aside his trench coat, looking somehow softer, less authoritative, in his tweedy coat, scrolling out a newsfeed. It looked so…normal, something Alex had seen dozens of times before: businessman, business trip. It was almost jarring it was so familiar, and he felt something like a wire scrape the back of his skull.
All of this was familiar: the preflight check, the sound of engines idling up. As long as Alex didn't look down, he could almost pretend this was normal, that he was flying to a conference, like the anti-terrorism one they'd had in New York.
It was almost too familiar, jarringly so. In the lab, in the testing centers, it was all so different it was easy to convince himself he had a different life, was another person entirely, but here, in an airplane seat like dozens he'd sat in in his life, it was like the skin, the life, of Alex Murphy was trying to fit itself back onto him, and it didn't even come close to fitting.
Fourteen hours, he thought, suddenly. Fourteen hours. The plane took off, no waiting on the runway for tower control. Like everything OmniCorp, it was special, privileged, rolling to take off as soon as the engines were hot. He and Norton were the only two on the plane—Kim was already in the States, in Detroit, overseeing the setup of the lab. He wondered if she'd flown like this, or if she only rated coach.
It was something to occupy his mind, to stare out the windows, where the sun cast rose gold on the clouds below, like they were above everything, floating on a sort of beautiful cloud, like a dream of heaven. But night gathered itself, pursuing them as they flew, sucking the color from the sky, until the sun seemed to yield to darkness, and the clouds below turned murky and indistinct, the sky above an unshifting mass of stars. He could see his own face, a pale moon, reflected in the window, surrounded by the black of his metallic body. It was still unsettling, and it made him wonder, made him worry, about what was ahead.
He'd done all of this for Clara, for David: he'd endured hundreds of fussy tests Norton came up with, struggled with the simulations, it was all to get home to them, to see them again. But now…doubt overtook him just like the night had swallowed the plane. What if David was afraid of him? What if Clara saw how little there was left of him, how much that used to be warm and alive was cold and hard? What if she felt guilty for what she'd signed for, consigned himself to? What if she found she couldn't love a man who couldn't hold her at night?
He felt the agitation, knew that if he were in Norton's lab there'd be a splay of color on a neuroscan, chemicals of distress spilling over his neural network. He looked over at Norton now, pure reflex, and saw the older man slumped against the fuselage, asleep. Norton looked haggard, older somehow, the creases on his face etching deeper. Alex wondered, suddenly, how much this had cost him, too, his eyes lighting on the gold of a plain wedding band on Norton's hand.
Norton had been with him, day and night, for months. What about his wife? His family? How long had it been since Norton had seen them? And Norton had chosen this, chosen Alex, chosen giving Alex a chance at a future, a chance to return to his family, over them.
He didn't know what to do with that thought, what to think about that, so he dropped his eyes down to his own hands, one pale skin, one black metal. He couldn't wear a wedding ring on that hand, even if Clara wanted him to. It was like, with the loss of that hand, that part of him was lost.
He hoped it wasn't some kind of omen. It felt like one.
Fourteen hours. They were almost halfway through it, but the last few had been…agonizing, thoughts of the reunion he was facing, which had seemed so golden and wonderful back in China, but which seemed to darken with doubt with every passing mile, sending spikes of worry and adrenaline through him.
Norton shifted, on his seat, and Alex forced himself to stare back out the window, looking beyond the reflection of his own taut, worried face, until the shadow fell over him, and he turned, trying to compose himself.
"Doctor Norton." Two words, after all this silence, seemed to fill the space of the cabin, and he'd tried to make his voice light, conversational. He could hear the strain, and he knew Norton could, too.
Norton looked only half awake, his tie askew, his hair rumpled, his own eyes behind his glasses shadowed with concern, his smile at least as much effort as Alex's voice. "I was wondering if you'd want to get some rest." The clearscreen tablet in his hand left no ambiguity what he meant: he was offering to shut Alex down, like they did every night, like a computer, like a machine. For a moment, Alex rebelled, and the struggle must have played across his face, because Norton continued, "You'd be better for it when we arrive." He tilted his head back to his vacant seat. "I'm going to sleep. It's the same thing."
It wasn't the same thing, not at all, but it was enough of an excuse that Alex didn't want to argue. Because he couldn't imagine the next seven hours in deadly silence, staring at darkness, lost in a maze of anxious thoughts.
He gave a mute nod, servos whispering the answer. Yes, he wanted to be asleep, off, anything to not sit through that. Norton gave that faint smile that said that Alex had made the right decision, pressing the button that reclined the seat, waiting for Alex to settle in, resting one elbow on the other seat's back until Alex signaled he was ready. "I'll wake you when we start the descent," Norton said, like a pledge. He always used human words 'wake' 'sleep', things that tried to insist Alex was human.
Alex nodded, hands squeezing and releasing, trying to let go of the last of his nerves. Norton typed the command to shut his systems down, slide him into rest, before moving his free hand to run his fingers along the line where the cowling circled Alex's face—the kind of touch Alex gave David, sometimes, putting him to sleep, a combination of affection and a sort of wonder. It was a strange, but not uncomfortable thought, that swept along with Alex as his sensory screens blanked and he let himself fall into the silent, uncomplicated darkness.