"Over my dead body!" Sheppard seemed to suddenly remember who he was addressing and added, slightly less heatedly, "Sir."
Colonel Steven Caldwell let the outburst go, just this once. Sheppard certainly had good reason to object to his order and he wasn't the complete heartless bastard that Sheppard apparently believed him to be. But neither was he an idiot. He'd been present when Colonel Sheppard and Dr McKay had been transported back here to the Daedalus' infirmary. He'd seen a lot during his many years in the service, and, although this wasn't the first time that he had seen the effects of torture on the human body, it was probably the worst.
He looked down at McKay as the scientist lay in the infirmary bed. Now that the man was cleaned up and covered by a blanket, it was difficult to believe the condition that he had been in when he first arrived; only the bandage which swathed McKay's head gave evidence of the ill-treatment he had suffered.
Caldwell knew that if he had been in McKay's position back on the planet, even he would have handed over his own family if that was what it took to stop the pain. Allowing a non-combatant to be put into that kind of situation was inexcusable, and, in his opinion, it was just another reason why having civilians in his team was a luxury which Sheppard, as the Military Commander of Atlantis, could no longer afford. Particularly when one of the civilians in question was Dr McKay. The man was irreplaceable in terms of the Atlantis expedition, Caldwell didn't have to particularly like the scientist to accept this as the truth. More importantly, though, McKay carried in his head more information on the strengths and weaknesses of Atlantis than any other three expedition members combined. If that knowledge fell into the wrong hands… which brought Caldwell back to his original order.
"Your personal objection is duly noted, Colonel." Turning away from Sheppard, Caldwell effectively dismissed him from the conversation. "Dr Marshall, do you have any medical objections?"
The ship's doctor pursed his lips for a moment in thought before he replied. "Dr McKay's condition has remained stable for over twelve hours, and I can see no real harm in a short", Marshall placed a heavy emphasis on the word, "debriefing, provided that it is not overly stressful."
"I'll take that as a 'no', doctor." He nodded for the medic to proceed with his preparations, watching as a mild stimulant was introduced into McKay's IV line. Whatever Sheppard and some of the other Atlanteans might think of him, he would not have gone against the medical opinion of his ship's doctor. Marshall was an excellent field medic as well as a fine doctor, and that meant a great deal in his view.
They simply needed to know what the enemy knew about Atlantis - sooner rather than later. And there was only one person able to provide that information. He had no intention of causing further harm to Atlantis' Chief of Science, no matter what Colonel Sheppard probably thought. This had to be done.
"Permission to conduct the debriefing, Sir?" Sheppard stood in the infirmary doorway, an almost defiant look on his face. The look caused Caldwell to raise an eyebrow, but he had expected no less from the man. They may not have seen eye-to-eye on many things, but he couldn't fault the Lieutenant Colonel's dedication when it came to the care and protection of his people.
"Granted, Colonel. Make it quick but make it thorough, we need to know exactly what information Dr McKay has disclosed." He stepped back out of Sheppard's way, allowing the younger officer to sit down beside McKay's bed.
"Rodney?" Sheppard spoke softly and McKay slowly began to stir at the sound of his name. "Rodney, can you hear me?"
This time when he woke, he could feel something covering his eyes. Whether it was bandages or a blindfold, he couldn't tell; there was no specific pain, but, by now, that meant nothing.
"Rodney, can you hear me?"
"Yes, Minister Jarrod." If he answered immediately and truthfully, sometimes the pain didn't start straight away. Sometimes.
"Rodney, it's me, John. I need to ask you some questions."
No. Oh please, god, no. He wouldn't have believed that any part of him could hurt more than it had already, but the stab he felt in his chest was a new kind of agony. Interrogation by Minister Jarrod had brought him physical pain beyond anything he could have imagined, yet simply the thought of the same interrogation by Sheppard was a torture so intense that it already left him whimpering like a whipped dog.
But Sheppard was dead, and he wasn't on the Daedalus heading back to Atlantis. He was strapped helpless to the chair while this man with Sheppard's voice prepared to question him. This was an impostor brought in by Minister Jarrod to exploit yet another one of his weaknesses. Sheppard was dead. If he could keep that clear in his head then he might just survive with his mind intact.
"Rodney, I need to know exactly what you told Jarrod about the Atlantis defences."
It wasn't a direct question, but the answer was easy. "Everything he asked." There was a flash of panic as he realised that he didn't know what to call this false Sheppard. Minister Jarrod always demanded the use of his full title when he answered, and he cringed away from the expected pain. Instead, a hand fell lightly on his arm.
"I'm sorry, Rodney. I need to know specifically what you told him about our security."
'Our' security? No, this was not Sheppard talking. It couldn't be. He'd seen the pictures of his team, the burned skin and fleshless bones. This was just another sadistic game of Minister Jarrod's. Now he had to think quickly. The first thing he had told Minister Jarrod had been, "Command Codes." His own, Elizabeth's, Sheppard's, Radek's, even Peter's although that one was useless now. Every set of codes that he had so stupidly committed to memory.
"That's okay, Rodney; we changed the Command Codes as soon as we knew that you'd been taken. I'm afraid there's a whole new bunch for you to memorise when we get back."
Even the half-joking tone was perfect.
He had to know.
Slowly, hesitantly, he moved his hand, expecting at every instant to feel the tug of the chair's restraints curbing his movement.
He'd reached the covering over his eyes before he felt the touch of another hand on his own.
"That's not a good idea, Rodney. Your eyes have been..." there was an almost imperceptible pause, "damaged. Wait until we get you back to Carson."
It was a command, but so softly spoken that somehow he didn't feel compelled to obey.
Bandages. His broken fingers were now splinted and useless, so he slipped his thumb beneath the dressings that covered his eyes and began to pry them loose.
"Colonel Sheppard, I'm calling a halt to this. Step out of the way, please." Another voice, one that he'd heard somewhere once before.
A hand caught hold of his wrist, gentle but firm, and instantly he was back in the chair, unyielding leather cutting into his flesh.
Oh, god. How could he have been such an idiot? Hope was the one thing he couldn't afford, the one thing that would truly destroy him. "I'm sorry, Minister Jarrod. I'm sorry." The last word caught painfully in his throat and he fought down the sob that followed.
"Rodney, it's okay." The false Sheppard spoke again, first to him and then to someone else in the room. "Doc, exactly how much harm could it do to let him see where he is?"
"I don't see what…" The other voice began, then stopped and continued more thoughtfully, "I understand. If we dim the lights and uncover just his right eye then there is very little chance of causing any further damage."
He lay in the chair while practised hands unwound the bandages until all that covered his right eye was a thin patch of gauze.
"Dr McKay, I want you to close your eyes for a moment." This time, he obeyed the command without thinking. "Good." The gauze was removed. "Now you can open your eyes, slowly. Don't worry if your sight is blurred, but I need you to tell me if you feel any pain."
At first there was just darkness, then a pale shape leaned over him, gradually swimming into focus. It was a face under a mop of dark hair.
"Who did you expect?" Sheppard's face broke into a broad grin.
It couldn't be true. He looked around, trying to penetrate the enclosing shadows, searching for a faint glint of light on the racks of tools that Minister Jarrod always kept so close to hand.
He looked back up into a still grinning face. Tentatively, he reached out. The hand that took his own was gentle, mindful of his broken fingers.
The pain in his chest began to subside, but surged again as he remembered, "Teyla, Ronon?"
"Don't worry, Rodney, they're back in Atlantis; they were out following other leads, but I found you first." The grin widened for a moment, then faded away leaving Sheppard looking tired and grey in the darkness. "I'm sorry it took so long."
Sheppard glanced up and across the room as if someone on the far side had caught his attention, gave a slight nod, and then looked back down at him with a sad smile.
"I'm afraid that we still need the answers to a few questions."
He relaxed into the bed and closed his eyes. The pain was still there, but now it was almost totally physical. He could live with that. "It's okay, Colonel. Ask me anything."