Chapter 37: Project Guardian
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As the mutants tore through the floors of Prison 09 and the Terran troops controlled the perimeter of the facility, in the command center located on the lowest floor, Colonel Rikers and several dozen officers and security personnel were doing their best to maintain control over the chaos. Even as they were gradually losing control, these veteran officers maintained their professionalism. They were chosen for this job for a good reason.

“Colonel, the 3rd company has retreated into the building. The hostile forces have yet to pursue.”

Colonel Rikers nodded. “Make sure the automated defenses are ready. If they enter the building, don’t let them leave.”

This facility had countless built-in security measures designed to incapacitate as many foes as possible in the event of an attack. Hidden flamethrowers. Large-caliber machine gun nests that could clear an entire hallway of enemies. Even protocols to seal off an area and unleash poison gas against unsuspecting enemies who were out of their armor or had their helmets open. This was their home turf, after all.

These measures might have been useless to the mutants still rampaging through the hallway, but they should work fine against human foes. That was the plan, at least.

“What is the status of the evacuation?” The colonel shifted his attention to another important matter. He had ordered the evacuation of all key researchers and significant research materials as soon as things began getting out of control. The hostile human force had taken the surface exit, but there were multiple emergency exit tunnels leading from this facility to other secret ground-level exits.

“We have only evacuated 6% of the researchers, sir. Many researchers were near Area B when the mutants breached containment…”

That was all that had to be said. The mutants weren’t exactly known for respecting people of science.

“What about Item 1?”

“It is lost in Area B as well. Our retrieval teams are unable to reach it.”

Colonel Rikers bit his lips. The researchers in this base were some of the brightest minds the Kingdom had. Normally losing just one of them could get plenty of people fired or worse. A part of him knew he likely wouldn’t be able to keep his job even if he survived this, but he forced himself to focus on the tasks at hand. Until he was relieved of command, he was still responsible for defending this base against all threats.

“What about Doctor Vincent? Is she evacuated yet?”

“Sir…Doctor Vincent had refused to be evacuated. She is still in her office.”

“What?” Colonel Riker snapped. “Why not?”

The officer could only shrug. As the overseer of this facility, the doctor outranked even the colonel. The colonel sighed and turned to another communications officer.

“Any news on the reinforcements?”

“No, sir. We are still under instructions to handle this breach with all the resources we currently have.”

Even as the officer made the report, Colonel Riker was making mental calculations. Without reinforcements, the troops he had at hand were numbered. The only reserves he had were three platoons. One was positioned outside of the office of Doctor Vincent. Another was near his command center. The third was protecting the evacuation process. The elevators around the facility were still mostly intact, allowing him to move troops between the floors without obstruction. It was just that the number of soldiers he had was quickly being depleted.

The tight corridors of the facility made fighting the mutants incredibly dangerous for even the best soldiers the Kingdom had. Snipers couldn’t really be used, nor could artilleries or aircraft. Tranquilizer guns and other large-caliber firearms were still useful, but many mutants could decimate an entire squad before the soldiers even realized what was going on.

“Sir!” Another officer interrupted the report and walked up to Colonel Rikers. “There is a problem. We have received multiple reports of friendly fire. A number of our own men have turned on the others.”

The colonel turned to the young woman. “What?”

“It’s true, sir. A squad reported encountering a fellow guard who joined them and then suddenly triggered several hand grenades. The rogue guard was killed in the explosion, along with most of the squad. That was not an isolated case.”

The colonel was a little taken aback. He could understand betrayals, but suddenly launching suicide attacks? Why? Most betrayals were due to reasons like self-preservation or greed, but this obviously wasn’t such a case.

“Is it possible some of the test subjects have somehow controlled the guards?” An officer pondered. His hypothesis was immediately refuted by another officer.

“Impossible! No test subject had demonstrated mind-control abilities before!”

“That doesn’t mean they are incapable of that! Maybe they have just been hiding this ability? Maybe they have controlled faculties before and we just never knew! Hell, maybe this is what is causing all this breach!”

“Inform the men…” The colonel's words died in his throat as his mind turned. What could he do? Tell his men that some of their comrades might suddenly shoot them in the back? That would only cause his men to distrust each other, and they didn't stand a chance against the test subjects if they fought alone. They could barely hold on while fighting in groups.

The man slammed his fist into the desk in frustration. He had never fought such a battle before. He was a veteran of traditional combat, but nothing about this fight was traditional.

“Sir?” An officer asked quietly.

At this point, Colonel Rikers knew a simple fact. This facility was as good as lost. His job was no longer to defend it. It was to salvage as much of the situation as possible. “Contact the 49th Platoon and tell them to get Doctor Vincent out of here. Use force if necessary…”

Before he could finish his command, the door to the command center slid open, and a trio of individuals in Lance class armor entered. Their rifles were attached to the side of their armor. As the guards saluted, Colonel Riker immediately recognized the leader. Captain Vans, one of his trusted lieutenants and a brilliant soldier. The question was…what was the captain doing back here in the command center?

“Captain! Shouldn’t you be at the front?” The colonel frowned, giving the man some benefit of the doubt. They had known each other for a long time, after all. “What are you doing back here?”

“Apologies, sir, but there is something I must inform you in person.” The captain began walking up to the colonel as his two bodyguards made their way to two corners of the command center.

For a brief second, the captain looked down on his command panel and really didn't think much of it. He had known the captain for long enough to know that the man was a loyal soldier who would gladly give his life for the Kingdom of Decima. There was little reason to be suspicious of him. That was when he suddenly recalled what his officer just told him.

Multiple friendly fire incidents…loyal Decima soldiers turning on each other…

The colonel looked up at the captain again. He still didn't think there would be a problem, but just in case, he wanted to tell the captain to say whatever he wanted to say without getting too close.

It was too late.

The captain, now only steps away from the colonel, suddenly reached into his ammo pouch and pulled out a pair of hand grenades. The two men that followed the captain into the room did the same.

By the time the dust settled twenty seconds later, all three changelings were gunned down by the security personnel in the command center, but their job was done. They were able to trigger and throw nine hand grenades before their deaths using the element of surprise and the trust their physical forms gave them, killing most of the officers in the room, including Colonel Rikers and two-thirds of the command staff. They were all brilliant officers, but when the shrapnel began flying, their expertise in tactics couldn't really help them.

The command center was one of the most fortified places in the facility. Normally it would take quite some time to break into, but by assuming the form of well-known Decima officers and soldiers, the three changelings simply strolled through the layers of defenses, received the salutes of the unsuspecting guards, and found themselves right in front of their assassination targets while they themselves were still fully armed.

“We are breaking through,” Athena whispered to herself as she received different information from the changelings and the roaches inside the facility.

Following the successful decapitation operation, the already failing position of the defenders took an even worse turn. The Terran forces were beginning to push into the underground floors, with the defenders gradually forced back. Changelings among the rank of the guards reported the guards being incredibly confused and disoriented. Their numbers were dropping with every passing minute with no help in sight. For many squads, the mission was no longer incapacitating or terminating the rogue test subjects. It was simply to stay alive.

As more areas became secured, Athena began heading for the building herself. She could do a lot of things via proxy through Terran avatars, but she needed to be next to computer terminals in person to have her adjutant access the valuable databases of this facility.

With some Terran marines and reapers as security, she walked past countless dead Decima soldiers and destroyed vehicles and entered a secondary command post on the above-ground level. All the surveillance cameras in the area had been destroyed, allowing her to maintain her anonymity as much as possible.

“Adjutant. Access the database and download every piece of data you can find.” She commanded as she stood next to a computer terminal.

“Affirmative. Bypassing security protocols now…” The adjutant paused. “Estimated time until data retrieval…3 minutes. Warning: Analysis suggests this device may not have access to highly classified information.”

“I know. It's only a secondary command post. Download whatever you can. We still need time to clean up the lower levels.” Athena nodded.

Three minutes went by quite quickly. Athena checked in with the units a few more times. The Terrans have encountered further resistance around the underground levels. Changelings estimated that around a third of the mutants were taken down, but the rest had been strolling through the facility, hunting everything they came across.

“Download complete. Forming summaries now…” The adjutant’s voice appeared in Athena’s head again. “This facility is the primary base of operation of Project Guardian. This facility’s overseer is Doctor Arya Vincent. This facility’s garrison commander is Colonel Will Rikers. The personnel of this facility consists of 1,139 combatants, 109 researchers, and 143 administrative staff.”

“The detailed information of Project Guardian can only be accessed from designated devices on Levels -4 and -5. Level -4 contains Area B, the test subject containment area, and Area C, the research area. Level -5 contains the command center and Doctor Arya Vincent’s personal office and laboratory.”

It seemed like she had to go deeper into this facility after all. Athena turned to Kir.

“Get your roaches to Levels -4 and -5. This time take out any test subjects still on Level -4. Also, keep an eye out for anything that looks out of the ordinary. If the roaches find anything that looks special, get one of them to make physical contact. Secure the command center on Level -5. If possible, take the doctor alive.”

“As you command, my queen.”

As the floor where the test subjects were first freed, Level -4 had become surprisingly quiet. Most test subjects have rushed to the other floors, leaving behind the shredded remains of guards and researchers. Only a handful of test subjects remained, lurking in the shadows and waiting to prey on anyone unfortunate enough to stumble upon them. They were responsible for the death of several Decima retrieval teams.

One by one, six roaches burst through concrete walls and returned to the floor again. Under the direction of Kir, they quickly spread out in trios and began scanning the entire floor for any valuable objects. Any mutant they encountered either fled immediately or was quickly melted alive by acidic salivas.

One particular trio of roaches made it past Area B and reached the research zone in Area C. After going through four laboratories, some of which contained horrific experiments and abominations that could traumatize a human being for life, and receiving little results, the trio of roaches came to a stop in front of a particular vault.

The vault first caught the queen’s attention not necessarily due to its design, but by the number of dead Decima guards in front of the vault. At least an entire platoon was stationed around the area, not that they made a difference when twice their number of mutants charged into their ranks.

The roaches began spitting acid on the thick steel door of the vault. It took them a while, but eventually, the acid formed a hole large enough for even the roaches to pass through.

One of the roaches entered the vault and found itself staring at something it had never encountered before in its own universe. There, in the center of the vault, was a blue crystal two meters in height and one meter in width. The crystal radiated a gentle, blue light. Around the vault were several mechanical arms and blades that were dormant for now.

As soon as the roach entered the vault and came close to the crystal, Kir sensed something was off with the Zerg. The roach began returning a number of signals, indicating a heightened level of aggression and hunger. It also reported feeling a number of unexpected changes to its body. However, these changes were quickly corrected by the roach’s own regenerative properties.

Kir immediately realized this crystal seemed to be the creator of all the test subjects. It appeared like this crystal could influence any biological lifeform it touched, making the lifeforms physically stronger and deadlier while giving them extreme levels of aggression. Luckily, the Zerg roaches were much more resilient to the effects compared to normal human beings. While a normal person would immediately be mutated, the roach only felt a little uncomfortable.

Kir quickly ordered the two other roaches outside of the vault to put some distance between themselves and the crystal. The roach already influenced by the crystal, under Kir’s orders, stepped forward and tapped one of its blades on the surface of the blue crystal.

As soon as the blade made contact with the crystal, Athena received another notification in her head.

“Psychic energy detected in close proximity to unit…”

“Analyzing energy…”

“Analysis complete. Energy overlaps with Protoss psionic powers…”

“Protoss structure Gateway has been unlocked…”