Mass Effect Retrospective 40: TIM Island

By Shamus
on Mar 24, 2016
Filed under:
Mass Effect


Over the past few entries I’ve brought up the fact that Cerberus has, somehow, become a galactic superpower with armies armies and fleets.

Shamus, according to the Codex Cerberus has trillions of credits. And TIM has stolen the plans to all of the Alliance warships. So it’s totally explained and you can’t complain about it.

Okay. The hand-wave for money and intelligence are massively improbable and stretch my credulity to the limit. The codex mentioned Cerberus has corporations and “shell companies”, which makes them sound big and impressive, but it doesn’t actually justify their wealth or power. “Shell companies” is just financial technobabbleFinancialbabble? in this case and doesn’t begin to explain things.

Dude, don`t you have a half dozen corporations to run? Doesn`t that keep you too busy for galactic conquest?

Dude, don`t you have a half dozen corporations to run? Doesn`t that keep you too busy for galactic conquest?

Humans are still a small power on a galactic scale. (Or were, according to the earlier games.) Yes, Humans were doing well… for a newcomer. Humans were promising. They had potential. They weren’t gods.

The other races have multiple worlds with dense populations, while humans are mostly on Earth, with a few scattered colonies. On a galactic scale, the other races are the United States, China, and Germany, while Humans are (say) Iceland. Awesome, skilled, and empowered by good home resources, sure. But there’s no scenario where, over a single generation, Iceland becomes so powerful that a single fringe group within Iceland can become a standalone superpower capable of conquering the capital city of one of the major nations.

In any case, trillions of dollars of income are hard enough to conceal on their own. If you’re a ten-year-old you might imagine that companies just have all their money in a big vault like Scrooge McDuck. But the truth is that a great deal of time and effort goes into making sure the money is accounted for. Imagine if Apple and Google tried to team up and funnel billions of income into some extremely illicit and clandestine activity. Yes, they have billions of income, but they also have billions in expenses. Without that money to run your company, your business will suffer. Without that money to pay your shareholders, people will dump your stock. Also, governments like to collect taxes, which means they’re pretty damn good at figuring out where the money goes, because the people who PAY you money file taxes. And even if you can somehow hide all that income, it doesn’t do you any good unless you spend it. And I have no idea how you can secretly spend trillions of dollars.

But fine. Cerberus has limitless money and intel. I’ll humor the writer. Throughout this series, I’ve been talking about why the first game was so good at world building, why that was important, and how these latter games failed at it. As a way of illustrating the point, let’s take a break from talking about Mass Effect and do a little worldbuilding ourselves with this thought experiment:

Welcome to TIM Island

You get to be The Illusive Earth-ManOr lady. Drooling cross-eyed dunces of any gender are welcome.. I’m going to give you “billions of dollars” of untraceable US funds. I’ll also allow you access to the plans for the best war machines on the planet. Any tool or vehicle you need to build, you can have the blueprints for how to build it. I’m also going to give you this:

You can build in the tropics and the planet will try to kill you with malaria, or you can build somewhere arctic where the planet will try to kill you with cold. Ask any real estate agent: Anywhere that isn`t trying to kill you is already occupied.

You can build in the tropics and the planet will try to kill you with malaria, or you can build somewhere arctic where the planet will try to kill you with cold. Ask any real estate agent: Anywhere that isn`t trying to kill you is already occupied.

Here is your very own uncharted island. I’ll promise that – somehow – none of the major governments on Earth know about this specific island. Maybe I’ve secretly programmed their spy satellites to blink when they pass overhead. Whatever. The point is that you’ve got massive wealth, access to all the technology blueprints you’ll need, and several square miles of space to work with.

All I want you to do is build one of these:

United States Arleigh Burke-class destroyer

United States Arleigh Burke-class destroyer

That’s the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. As far as I can tell from Wikipedia, it’s a pretty standard destroyer and a mainstay of the US Navy. I’m not asking you to build something insane like an aircraft carrier, which is basically a floating nuclear-powered city / military base / airstrip. No, you just need to build a small-to-medium sized warship. But here’s the catch: You have to build it in secret. The United States is pissed at you. They have you listed as a terrorist organization, and if they find out about this project they’ll show up and bomb it off the map.

Let’s start with raw materials. You can’t roll into the hardware store and buy the parts for Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, so you’re going to have to make them yourselves.

You’re going to need over 9,000 tons of steel. No, you can’t just buy junkers and melt them down. You’re building a warship, not Cadillacs. You need specialty steelBut not THAT specialty steel. That Wikipedia entry is for World War II ships. You’ll need whatever they’re using these days. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.. Specialty steel is actually a semi-rare resource and not many steel mills produce it. I have no idea how you’re going to get 9,000 tons of it without raising any eyebrows, but I’m sure you can bribe some people.

You’ll need to get that stuff to the island. I guess you’ll need your own ocean shipping company, since you can’t tell outsiders where your island is. No problem, you can afford it. (Protip: Buy the biggest one you can. You’ll see why soon.)

You’ll need a mill to shape the steel and a shipyard to assemble the pieces. You’ll need a factory where the machine parts can be constructed. You’ll need tons (literally) of specialized cranes and heavy-lifting equipment to move that stuff around. You’ll need glass, plastics, rubber, and several different kinds of metal. This means you’re going to need machines that can heat and shape steel. Those systems are going to require a shipload of electricity, so you’re going to need a lot of generators and a huge volume of fuel. All of that needs to come on your supply ships.

These guys are clearly part of a rogue cell.

These guys are clearly part of a rogue cell.

You can’t just have your ships dump all those raw materials on the beach and sail away. You’ll need dockworkers. You’ll need engineers trained in this kind of large-scale work. You’ll need a factory full of machinists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and marine engineers. You’ll need welders, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, stevedores, people to manage the power grid, and managers to keep the whole enterprise organized. You’re also going to need just under 200 people to crew the vessel.

Now Hiring

Now, if you were just hiring guys to carry rifles or dig ditchesBy the way: You also need to hire guys to carry rifles and dig ditches., you could get away with hiring disaffected 20-something dropouts that won’t be missed. But you need trained, skilled, experienced workers, which means you’re hiring older people, which means people with families and business connections. It’s going to be hard enough finding the skilled labor you need to come work at your secret island, but asking all of them to leave behind their families for an unknown period of time is beyond absurd. They simply wouldn’t take the job. These people already live comfortable lives and make a lot of money, and they’re going to be relatively smart and educated. You can’t lure them away from their families with money and trickery. At least, not nearly enough of them for a job this size. (Or maybe you’ll kidnap them? I’ll come back to that idea later.)

So now you have a few thousand workers, skilled and unskilled. Plus their families. They aren’t going to sleep on the beach and catch fish with their hands. So you need housing. And people to build the housing. And electricity for the housing. And buildings to protect all of the raw materials and equipment. Even if you use a lot of pre-fab buildings, you’re still going to need trucks, workers, earthmoving equipment, and lots of concrete to build this place. You can’t do heavy industrial work on dirt floors, and you can’t keep your sensitive equipment in a plywood shed, after all.

With this many people on the island, it’s time to start thinking about sanitation. You need running water and some sort of way to deal with sewage. I mean, you’re an evil terrorist organization so you can just dump all the waste in the oceanI know you’re evil, but hopefully not stupid. Try to dump it away from the populated areas., but you still need to lay the pipes and build the water towers.

Frank, you fool! Rogue AI projects go in aisle 7, next to the super-soldier cages. Aisle 6 is for unstable bioweapons.

Frank, you fool! Rogue AI projects go in aisle 7, next to the super-soldier cages. Aisle 6 is for unstable bioweapons.

You’re going to have a lot of trucks rolling around between construction sites, the docks, the fuel depot, and the warehouses. You don’t want to have work come to a halt because it rained and turned your roads into mud. That means you need all the equipment, raw materials, and workers for putting down blacktop.

I didn’t say exactly how big the island is, but as the population grows you’ll have to decide if you want to build “up” or “out”. You can build multi-story buildings close together or you can build lots of low buildings that eat up a lot of real estate. The former requires more advanced building materials, steel, and construction techniques, while the latter requires a more ambitious road network. It’s your call.

In either case, generators are pretty much impractical at this point. You need an actual power plantActually, we’re long past that point. Melting steel requires RIDICULOUS amounts of power.. However, you don’t have to build it to regulations, so you can build some cheap-ass, un-filtered, coal-fired monstrosity if you want to. So you have that going for you. You just need to keep the smog from getting so bad that it reveals your islandI hid your island, not the whole ocean. If you make a giant mess of pollution, dead marine life, or floating garbage that reveals your base, then that’s all on you..

You can’t evac people via helicopter every time someone breaks a leg or gets pregnant. So you’re going to need a medical center, along with the requisite doctors, nurses, paper-pushers, and orderlies to make the place work.

What you have at this point is a small city, which I will name TIM Town.

Of course, with thousands of people living in such close proximity, there will no doubt be disputes. You’ll need some sort of force to police the populace, keep the peace, and settle conflicts in a way that doesn’t get your hard-to-obtain workers killed or injured.

I`m waiting for the episode of Drity Jobs where Mike Rowe has to recapture an escaped super soldier that`s slaughtering the research staff.

I`m waiting for the episode of Drity Jobs where Mike Rowe has to recapture an escaped super soldier that`s slaughtering the research staff.

Drivers, doctors, nurses, police, managers, housing managers, custodians. You’ll notice that we’ve added a lot of people to the island that aren’t contributing directly to the overall goal of building this ship. In fact, even though our only goal is to build and sail this ship, the number of people directly contributing to that goal are vastly outnumbered by the people in support roles. Infrastructure is a pain in the ass like that.

Sure, you can buy personal armor and infantry weapons on the black market, but if you’re trying to field a fully mechanized military then you need to build all your larger war machinery from scratch. This is why terrorist organizations generally don’t own warships and fighter jets, even though they might really, really wish they did. Every mook in your army is supported by hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of civilian workers.

We’re not close to done yet. Somehow you need to swear all of these tens of thousands of people to absolute secrecy. They all need to keep their mouths shut, without so much as a quick email to the folks back home. And good luck monitoring their internet usage, unless you’re going to hire a surveillance army. (And then worry about who is watching them.) Some totalitarian governments are trying to let their populace benefit from the web without their people being exposed to “bad information”. They have been… not 100% successful. And anything less than 100% exposes your island to the enemy.

TIM: Well then, I just won’t have public internet on my island!

You’ve got an island with thousands of wealthy inhabitants and no entertainment. You’ve got children with no schools and a ton of single young men with no access to porn. You’ve got people doing technical work with no access to a library. You are going to give the people internet, or you are going sit on the beach and make sandcastles all by yourself.

TIM: Sigh. Fine.

You’ll need to feed these people. Highly trained personnel aren’t going to want to bring their families here to Science Fantasy Island so they can eat MREs. Where they lived they could go out for Mexican, Thai, Pizza, Burgers, Sushi, hipster kale-flavored lattes, or a thousand other choices every night of the week. If nothing else, the parents are going to be really worried about their children’s nutrition. So you can’t just build a giant industrial-grade cafeteria. You’re going to need something approaching a middle-class grocery store.

By this point it almost doesn’t matter if your shipping company is staffed with perfectly trustworthy sailors who never breathe a word to anyone when they come into port to load up on supplies. All that food, equipment, fuel, personnel, and raw materials are going to require a steady stream of vessels between civilization and your island. That’s going to be really hard to overlook. I’ve hidden your anthill, but how do you plan to hide that line of busy ants?

Given the huge number of resources and (more importantly) people you’re pulling out of civilization, it’s preposterous to imagine that your island could go unnoticed.

What About Slavery?

Morale is low, but we’re hoping our "employees" will respond to the new casual Friday policy.

Morale is low, but we’re hoping our "employees" will respond to the new casual Friday policy.

Now at this point maybe you’re tempted to say you’ll just enslave all your workers, and to hell with this idea of “bring your family to the secret base”. That ought to cut way down on your infrastructure costs and security concerns, right?


To make this work, you would need to slip undetected into a developed country, kidnap a highly trained worker without harming them, and escape the country with this large, very uncooperative body without being detected and without your prey getting killed or seriously injured. You’ll need to do this hundreds or even thousands of times. And each one will be harder than the last, because mass abductions don’t go unnoticed and people tend to adapt quickly to serious threats. A hack writer might imagine the world is full of inert dunces that just sit around and wait for the plot to happen to them, but in the real worldOr in a fictional world that’s trying to hold together through the power of verisimilitude. people think about the future, appraise risk, and pursue goals.

In doing these abductions, you’ll attract the rather spirited attention of your foes. (Governments HATE when you swipe their skilled workers, and they hate it even more if you steal their best taxpayers.) Your prey are going to become paranoid, observant, angry, and aggressive. They have high-paying jobs and will hire bodyguards if your abduction spree gets crazy enough.

Even if you somehow perform the abductions without getting caught, you now have several thousand very clever, very pissed off engineers with tools. They will simply build devices to call for help and broadcast the location of your secret base to the world. You could hire guards to keep them in line, but the population of guards is going to need to be massive. In terms of resources, they will probably be more burdensome than the families you got rid of.

Also, slave labor is notoriously inefficient, and skilled slave labor is doubly so. They can look extremely busy without getting any work done, and will spend all their time plotting revenge or escape. A guard can look at a slave and see that he’s not digging a ditch, but can a guard look at an engineer and tell that he’s building a ham radio and not a navigation computer?

Code red! I`ve got a code red! An engineer is not building a radar system to spec!

Code red! I`ve got a code red! An engineer is not building a radar system to spec!

And remember, it only takes one clever engineer to make a device that will light up the ionosphere with a plea for help, announcing the location of your incredibly vulnerable secret base to your much-stronger-than-you foes, and the whole operation is a bust. And since some of your engineers will be in charge of building radio equipment, I have no idea how you’d keep this from happening.

But fine. Let’s say you miraculously pull it off. By slavery or bribery, you built your one destroyer. Against all the odds, you got it seaworthy without your foes coming to bomb you. High five!


I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but the ship isn’t much use without weapons. And you’ll need the specialized explosives to make the weapons work. You can’t buy that stuff, so you’ll need to make it yourself. You’re going to need a chemical plant for that, which means hiring or kidnapping chemists and a staff to support their work and acquiring all the various chemical components without creating a paper trail anywhere. You’ll need a way to dispose of the waste from the chemical plant because that stuff can be pretty dangerous and might make a mess that would give you away.

This is Ridiculous

Here is a chemical plant. You`ll need to build, staff, supply, and power it. Oh, you`ll probably want to build some containers to safely store the resulting explosive compounds.

Here is a chemical plant. You`ll need to build, staff, supply, and power it. Oh, you`ll probably want to build some containers to safely store the resulting explosive compounds.

The point of all of this is that massive projects take massive infrastructure, and infrastructure does not mix well with secrecy. Even if you have wealth to rival that of a small nation and unlimited intelligence, this is still an impossible task. Even if your island is magically invisible, the billions of dollars you’re pumping into the economy aren’t. Nor are the legions of skilled workers you’ve absorbed, the tons of raw materials you’re consuming, or the tons of waste and pollution you’re producing. And all of this gets worse if you treat your skilled labor like disposable mooks and have them killed by the dozens in lab accidents. In the real world, people have relatives that will come looking for them if they vanish.

And as ludicrous and impossible as this enterprise seems, I’ve actually skipped quite a few steps. I offer it as an exercise to the reader: What other bits of infrastructure, labor, technology, logistics, or raw materials have I overlooked? What dangers have I left out?

And then realize that once you overcome these impossible odds, you’ve only accomplished one-thousandth of what Cerberus did when they built, equipped, and fielded not one ship, but fleets of them. They don’t just have one island, they have an army large enough to wage war on multiple fronts on multiple worlds against multiple foes. They’ve got weapons, combat mechs, troop transports, fighters, and the ability to maintain supply lines to keep the entire enterprise going.

Okay, this is science fiction where “anything can happen”, but this is still ostensibly a universe based on rules. Unless stated otherwise, the audience will assume that the normal rules of entropy, thermodynamics, and economies of scale apply. Your job as a storyteller is to bridge the gap between what the audience intuits should happen with what does happen in your story. This “secret army” idea is so preposterous that you can’t expect the audience to swallow it without explanation.

But Shamus! Cerberus has Reaper Tech.

We’ll talk about that next time when we return to Mass Effect 3.

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[1] Financialbabble?

[2] Or lady. Drooling cross-eyed dunces of any gender are welcome.

[3] But not THAT specialty steel. That Wikipedia entry is for World War II ships. You’ll need whatever they’re using these days. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.

[4] By the way: You also need to hire guys to carry rifles and dig ditches.

[5] I know you’re evil, but hopefully not stupid. Try to dump it away from the populated areas.

[6] Actually, we’re long past that point. Melting steel requires RIDICULOUS amounts of power.

[7] I hid your island, not the whole ocean. If you make a giant mess of pollution, dead marine life, or floating garbage that reveals your base, then that’s all on you.

[8] Or in a fictional world that’s trying to hold together through the power of verisimilitude.

A Hundred!A Hundred!2019239 COMMENTS? What are you people talking about?!?

From the Archives:

  1. Eigil says:

    “I know you’re evil, but hopefully not stupid.”

    I thought you said I got to be the Illusive man?

  2. Veylon says:

    In fairness, couldn’t the shell corporations be the same corporations that make the specialized equipment for the military in the first place? If you already own the equivalent of Lockheed Martin or Northtrup Grumman, it would seemingly be relatively easy to just produce extra of whatever you are already producing and funnel it into a different shell corporation that smuggles it off to TIM Island. Nobody making hyperdimensional tube alloy or positronic ablative film or whatever needs (or probably cares) where it’s going when it’s finished. So long as the pallets or tanks of the stuff are being loaded on a LegitCo. truck in broad daylight – and not seized by Space ISIS at night – there’s no reason to suspect that anything’s wrong.

    Oh, and there’s also the opportunity for a genre-savvy group to pretend to be the government. If people in suits with FBI badges come to your door in government-marked vehicles, would you believe that they’re the real deal? Enough people believe that the government has secret facilities up to strange activities to not properly employ skepticism if they found their fantasies confirmed.

    It doesn’t fix everything – or even most things – but it’s something.

    • Jarenth says:

      One issue with your ‘we’re from the government, don’t tell anyone that you’re coming with us to save the world’ idea is that it still doesn’t alleviate the issue of friends, family and co-workers noticing that you’re missing and raising a fuss about it.

      And I don’t know how ‘relatively easy’ it would be to produce a little more of whatever hyper-specialized equipment the shell companies are making? It seems to be that if they were capable of making more of the rare expensive thing only they can make, they’d do so. There’s gotta be a market for that kind of stuff. Upscaling fancy engineering operations has issues all its own.

      • guy says:

        Well, it’s possible they could but don’t because the goverment isn’t paying for more. But on the other hand, the government is highly likely to be paying attention to what they’re making and is liable to notice highly advanced equipment going missing in sufficent quantity to build an entire battlefleet.

        • Felblood says:

          In FPTP democracies, at least, the demand for military equipment tends to run on a Boom-And-Bust type of cycle, depending on whether the war-hawks or the peace-niks are in power this year.

          There’s always at least some production going on, but when the government contracts dry up there’s a lot of factories that have to be throttled back.

          That’s why so many American arms companies also manufacture parts for civilian vehicles. It gives a more reliable yearly revenue stream, to keep the investors from panicking whenever the Democrats take the senate.

        • NotSteve says:

          Yeah, partially the issue is just one of scale. If I skim off one part from every thousand I make, that’s probably going to be lost in the numbers. There’s some amount of waste that goes into every project, and I’m pretty sure one in a thousand parts “failing inspection” is a pretty good ratio.

          But Cerberus is trying to build a fleet to rival all the other powers. Even if they control every human manufacturer, they’re still going to have to be building a *lot* of ships. Much more than one ship for every one they build for humanity, since humanity already *has* a fleet. And people are going to notice if three-quarters of the parts you manufacture start failing inspection.

          • Taellosse says:

            The further problem is that this only works for the raw materials, and certain universal components – It’s quite clear that in ME3, all of Cerberus’ equipment is custom-built for them – pretty much all their gear looks nothing like what the Alliance, or any other galactic government’s military – uses. So they still need a massive infrastructure to turn the raw materials into parts and put them together into finished equipment.

            • Lachlan the Mad says:

              I think you can put some leeway on parts manufacture. Small bits like computers and wiring can be uses universally in these applications. That said, if the Cerberus ships are using a completely different chassis design, that if nothing else will have to be custom-made, and that’s one of the hard bits.

              • Chefsbrian says:

                Not to defend Cerberus, but in the universe, a SIGNIFICANT amount of production seems to be automated (and would certainly make sense as such, considering the capabilities that robotics have shown). So some companies help manufacture the equipment that is used to manufacture further goods. If Cerberus was in control of that corporation, they could order some off the books tooling to be made for another shell that manufactures something else out of the materials you want to work with. Work in some quality control loss to account for the material, and have a backwater world pumping out gear somewhere. Its ridiculous the rate at which they did acquire this stuff, but if you force yourself to accept the concept that TIM has significant industrial assets in the form of assorted corporations, it at least holds up conceptually, but not to the scale they impose.

                It would have been much more believable if Cerberus’s main force was a handful of particularly high tech (Reaper tech) ships and infantry forces making precision strikes. Hell, it’d even make the Citadel attack and the Salarian homeworld attacks slightly more believable.

                • Decius says:

                  Companies of that size don’t have an “off the books” that they can make stuff. Every timecard and every assembly-line-hour is accounted for and billed to a specific project.

                  Maybe someone could bill it to a black project that was assumed to be secret government stuff, but the beancounters talk to the people who approve real secret government stuff and they would notice the discrepancy between the number of secret projects approved through proper channels and the number being done.

                  • guy says:

                    Well, actually it is entirely possible to hide projects when everything is accounted for, though it isn’t anything like a one-man job. The trick is to just bill all the work on the project to different projects. Obviously the managers of those projects will pretty quickly notice that they’re being billed for more work than is actually being done, but that can be solved by just telling them it’s being diverted to a secret project. Then people will notice that the other projects are over budget, but projects are almost invariably over budget* and so long as this remains in vaguely reasonable bounds people are unlikely to suspect the funds are going to a different project.

                    Still, this has its limits. Fundamentally there’s more work listed as being done than is actually being done, and people will spot this. The beancounters know that people hide embezzlement by filing fake invoices, and at a certain point they will get suspicious and poke around. The more people who are in on it, the more you can get away with because you get to cook the books in more places, but at some point you reach the point at which someone who isn’t in on it gets suspicious enough to go in person to check if work is actually happening. By the time you’re talking building a secret battlefleet, you are well past hiding it from the government. Even for governments, they’re pretty much going to have to announce that a giant pile of money and resources is being spent on a secret project.

                    *I halfway suspect that this exact scenario is part of why; the US government has covered up extremely classified projects by splitting their costs among multiple less-classified projects in the past. Much to the annoyance of the people who had to go in front of Congress to lie about why their project was 100% over budget.

          • Duoae says:

            Well, that only really works for small parts and items.

            You don’t tend to get hulls and frames of ships/vehicles ‘rejected’: they get retooled. If you look at the aviation industry, you’ll see that a lot of planes, despite having been designed to a certain specification sheet have minor deviations due to accidents/mistakes during production. These are all logged and put into the service/maintenance manual of that particular plane.

            I presume ships are the same. Cars are easier because they are vastly less complex and small deviations to their superstructure are meaningless.

    • Grudgeal says:

      Heck, at that point you could almost get Lockheed or whatever to build the ship. You just don’t tell them that you’re the one paying for it instead of the US government, and of course you don’t tell the US you own Lockheed.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Ok,lets translate this to the real world again.We can safely assume that some weapon manufacturers are doing this.So,how come all of the weapons any terrorist group ever has access to are personal weapons?Grenades,machine guns,rocket launchers,etc.But you will never see them in a state of the art helicopter,tank or a ship,unless they specifically attempt to steal one.

      Heck,heres the real kicker:You can easily manufacture a dirty bomb capable of contaminating a metropolis with deadly radiation.All you have to do is go to the remnants of chernobyl and snatch some uranium,then use conventional explosives to disperse it.You dont really need to do many illegal things in order to achieve that.Now,how many dirty bombs have we had go off in the world?How many threats of dirty bombs have we had?

      • Grudgeal says:

        Because, unlike in Mass Effect, in Real Life the overlap between ‘people rich enough to own heavy industry military contractors’ and ‘people backing or owning major terrorist groups’ is vanishingly slim.

        If the Board of Investors of Northrop Gunman or Lockheed Martin were ideologically committed to the overthrow of the current United States government, for example, I imagine they have a whole range of more legal options to spend their money on first, like lobbying or backing political candidates that align with their own vision. That said, if they didn’t have those legal options available to them, I can imagine with a little verisimilitude that they could make all manner of things disappear under the table.

        • Chefsbrian says:

          They wouldn’t even have to make things disappear to an outside group. They could literally just cut production. The US military is highly dependent on a few contractors for some of their particularly sensitive equipment. If Lockheed suddenly thought its profits were tanking due to the next generation of sensor upgrades for their current fighters, maybe make some really shitty supply contracts to inflate the manufacturing price massively, they could easily justify refusing any contract that the military could reasonably afford. They’d be able to continue and even expand foreign sales in support of the US allies to keep themselves afloat, publicly anyhow, while leaving the US brass in a bit of a panic about losing the technological edge they need over their enemies. That’s all the leverage they’d need behind the scenes.

          For the Mass Effect logic to really work, you’d have to assume that TIM, through any series of connections plausible, owns the VAST majority of the Alliances military production capabilities. Since warship construction is an INCREDIBLY expensive business considering the high volumes of Element Zero involved, it becomes really hard to imagine that TIM is so unknown, and that he doesn’t have any significant internal strife from the public holders of his trillion credit corporations.

          • Incunabulum says:

            “They’d be able to continue and even expand foreign sales in support of the US allies to keep themselves afloat, ”

            Foreign sales of most military hardware – even stuff as commonplace as firearms and firearm ammunition – are with the permission and at the whim of the US government.

            Lockeed could certainly *design* an export version of a system they’re selling to the USM, they’ll need Congressional approval to *export it*.

            If the local version suddenly became too expensive to afford while the export version was still being churned out, someone’s going to be asking some pointed questions. And in Cerebus’ case they can’t just come back with ‘well the reduced capability of the export version justifies the reduced production costs’ as they keep pointing out how their gear is on par with the cutting edge stuff available to the Alliance (Such as the N2).

            As someone suggested above – if they had a small core of reaper and cutting edge tech gear supplemented with troops and vehicles that are noticeably 2nd/3rd tier military gear it’d make sense.

            But they’re constantly thrown out as a force comparable to the best of the existing militaries.

        • Duoae says:

          Well, not really. Many VERY rich middle-eastern countries and persons within those countries have been found to be backing various guerilla/terrorist groups. Hell, even with sanctioned state backing (see USA’s support in various conflicts and coups as an example) the dissidents do still not have access to those huge items of war-making.

          I presume that’s mostly because they’re really easy to trace vis a vis a kalashnikov plus they require one of those massive support networks Shamus mentioned in the article to continuously operate. Something the dissidents don’t have.

    • MrGuy says:

      I find the Geocide pages guide to organizing an attempt to destroy the earth a useful parallel to “found Cerberus” as a goal.

    • Wide And Nerdy ™ says:

      To be fair to the game, one thing we’re forgetting (or in Shamus’s case, simply haven’t gotten to yet,) is that Councilor Udina is a Cerberus sympathizer. In Mass Effect terms, this is like having the Speaker of the House or (depending on your choices) the President on your side. (I use the U.S. for this because the U.N. doesn’t have nearly as much real power as its Mass Effect counterpart.)

      TIM is also said to have very wealthy backers, it could be that those backers have means of manufacture. They could screen their staff for people who have few ties, willingness to do what needs to be done, and keep quiet, and give TIM some of those.

      And unlike with Earth, space in the Mass Effect setting has regions where people can operate with no oversight (I assume this is why you were willing to allow for the invisible island in your scenario). We see that a bunch of corporations in this space in Mass Effect 1.

      • 4th Dimension says:

        Yeah, SPACE is BIG really BIG. In any given volume of space containing multiple systems only a SMALL fraction have habitable and interesting planets. So if you want to hide your base it’s simple as putting it in one of those uninteresting systems outside of the juristiction of the big players. Places like the Traverse and such.

        On the other hand while you can hide the base itself, hiding the entire fleets of merchant cargo shops that will be shuttling back and forth with your hidden base and bases will be a lot higher to hide. The analyst might not be able to pinpoint your location, but they will notice that a significant amount of shipping by some shady corps has recently been diverting through some highly unussual sectors of space, so we better send someone to check up on that.

        • Sleeping Dragon says:

          Also bear in mind that most long range (this being further than several systems away if I understand ME setting correctly) transportation needs to go through a convenient chokepoints of the mass effect relays. Even outside council space I assume council intel makes some token effort to monitor moving enough resources to construct a goddamn fleet, not that non-council alien races would be happy to assist Cerberus, and organized human presence outside of council space is limited to some underdeveloped colonies if I remember correctly.

      • guy says:

        I think it’s more analogous to having the Speaker of the House on your side when you’re trying to steal from the National Guard. Udina is the Systems Alliance representative on the Council, not the leader of the Systems Alliance, and I never got the sense he had any sort of direct control over the military on his own authority; when he grounds the Normandy it’s docked at the embassy and it seemed like everything else he does relating to the military was requests approved by the military or the central government. He might well have the connections to make some crates of guns, APCs, and maybe even a couple frigates disappear, but not enough firepower to engage twenty percent of the Alliance Fleet in a pitched battle.

        • Rayen says:

          To be fair the speaker of the house has a lot more authority over the military than we realize. Favors are a currency in political organizations. Speaker udina nominates the members of Private Arms and Armaments oversight committee, he trades the votes of several core faction members for his support of their own projects. So he’s putting hand picked cerberus supporters to regulate and keep an eye on cerberus for the gov’t while supporting some bill that doesn’t hurt him or even make the 6:00 news. It helps but gov’t oversight is one thing the amount of stuff cerberus gets would start catching the eye of civilian watchdog groups. not to mention cerberus seems to be a rogue cell factory.

          • Toastehh says:

            And even Udina only seems to have become a sympathiser when his back was really to the wall and all the Alliance had to offer was ‘we fight or we die take back earf’.

            That’s why I think they never really extinguished the nuanced character he came across as at the very beginning of 1. And not for want of trying throughout all three games :(

    • Shoeboxjeddy says:

      The best part of this idea is that Cerberus Co LTD would probably be making the Alliance Gear that is used to fight Cerberus at the same time, just to keep up appearances. So it’s a bit of a “one for you, two for me” situation.

    • Matt K says:

      On the other hand, government tend to keep a close eye on their own weapons manufacturers specifically to make sure they don’t sell your secrets or build your weapons for others.

    • Collin Pearce says:

      The idea of a shell company is that it exists as a placeholder, but doesn’t do anything. A shell corporation that takes care of things is the opposite of what a shell corporation is.

      I found ME2 had a constant stream of eyerolling dialogue. I generally had a fun enough time with the game that I ignored it but ME3 spent the last of my patience.

    • Tom says:

      That only works if it’s a relatively small fraction of the total amount of materiel being processed, so it can get lost in the overheads. Siphoning and overproduction would invariably be noticed by even the most dysfunctional bureaucracy if you tried to use it to produce a finished military force comparable in size to that fielded by whoever you’re siphoning from, which is what Cerberus is actually depicted as doing. Even the most incompetent navy with a few tens of battleships, even a couple of hundred, WOULD notice if they’d somehow lost enough worker hours, material, fuel and parts to produce even one whole new battleship.

    • Jack V says:

      I was thinking something like this. I doubt it makes any sense in ME, but if I were writing a story where I wanted a covert organisation to turn into a major military/political power, I might have them subvert existing militaries and/or manufacturers, to turn existing forces into *their* forces.

      I think that comes a bit closer to things that have happened in history and fiction, enough that you COULD sell it. But you would, you know, describe it happening, have people say “oh my god, half the klingon space fleet has declared for cerberus, WTF?” and highlight the triumphant/terrifying entry to the political stage. Not just have it happened retroactively behind the scenes.

      And I guess, it would rely on things like the ships not just appearing out of nowhere, custom-made, not crewed by humans only, etc, etc which I gather wasn’t the case.

      OTOH, I guess it depends just how good your “alien tech” is. If it’s, eg. a nanomachine assembler which can convert a spare metal asteroid to a major warship with as-yet-unknown superweapons and supershields, maybe you COULD build the best fleet in the galaxy covertly. Although, again, you would expect that to be mentioned prominently in the plot…

      • Robyrt says:

        Generally, the way you make an army appear from nowhere is to do it like Napoleon: get an existing army and its civilian supporters to switch to your side overnight. Of course, Cerberus is supposedly such a secret black ops organization, yet they have entire planets full of stuff…

    • Actually there is one major and simple thing that Shamus left out that could account for all of this:

      Cerberus has access to AI. So building Tim Island looks more like this:

      Found a Mass Relay Exploration company. Their continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where etc. etc. It’s part of the game that there are numerous relays that nobody knows where they are. There are also plenty of uninhabited systems. Galaxy be big, yo.

      Find some planets with valuable exploitable natural resources. Get financing to exploit them.

      All simple and aboveboard until this point. Now you:

      Do some more exploring and find sites that can be exploited that connect with your original site, so there’s plenty of reason to have TONS of ships coming and going at all times. Sell this info to other companies (preferably as shady as you, easier to bribe) so they can eat the further costs of exploiting them.

      Build a fuel depot at your site so the coming and going ships have plenty of reason to stop and take on materiel.

      Falsify your production reports for your new planetary facilities. Produce more than you say you are, and sell most of it on the black market, exchanging with the aforementioned shady companies who are probably doing exactly what you’re doing for materials that you otherwise find difficult to obtain.

      Do almost all of the work with robots, so it’s very hard for the few human overseers–who have to suit up to go out and actually see the robots instead of just staying in their nice comfy office and watching monitors–to get any idea of the overall picture. If a few of these people go missing, oh well, mining accidents happen. Heck, you can probably keep the personnel requirements down far enough that you can just employ morally questionable people anyway.

      Build a robot-manufacturing plant on site. Make sure you download plans for many other types of robots while you’re at it.

      Build tons of manufacturing robots.

      Have the robots do all of your expanding and building work for you. Start manufacturing arms and armor. Start recruiting thousands of mook mercenaries nobody will miss and outfitting them with your arms and armor.

      You can probably buy ships legitimately via existing shipbuilders as you are an EXPLORATION company. Since that’s a legitimate earning business, it’s basically a perfect cover. Recall them one at a time to your main site. Replace the crews with your army of mook mercs. Refit the ship with weapons.

      Send merc mooks with weaponized ship off on missions.

      Voila, you have a fully functional TIM Island. You don’t have to worry about keeping it HIDDEN because people just figure it’s a giant mining/manufacturing complex/fuel depot.

      • Also this helps explain why Cerberus does everything with ground forces–their “fleet” is exploration/merchant vessels converted into troop transports and weapons platforms. They can’t get into ship-to-ship combat with actual military vessels, so they focus all of their efforts around ground insertions.

        Normandy-style cloaking technology (which we know they have access to, since they rebuilt the Normandy) is a huge boon to Cerberus. As long as they can HIDE their ships from the usual detection methods, they can go where they want, dump off troops, accomplish their goals on the ground, and escape.

        I didn’t actually play the 2nd and 3rd games so I don’t know if there are any times when a military Cerberus Fleet Battle happens or if they just keep popping up on the ground.

        • Ninety-Three says:

          I don’t remember much mention of Cerberus space battles, but there are times when they necessarily must have done so to get their ground forces where they did. When they went after Eve the Krogan, they had to drop off forces on the Salarian homeworld, which would surely have been on high alert due to the ongoing Reaper invasion. That’s like if North Korea managed to land a helicopter in the parking lot of the Cheyenne mountain complex, during the height of the Cold War. They must have overcome a hell of a lot of aerial resistance to make it happen.

          The Normandy’s stealth systems explicitly don’t work when it comes out of a jump, and they don’t make the ship invisible to normal light, so something should have seen them.

          Similarly, when they seized control of the Citadel, C-Sec should have rolled in with ships to provide air support*, and the only explanation for why they didn’t is that the ships around the Citadel (and there must have been ships around the Citadel, they wouldn’t just leave it undefended) were busy doing something else, like fighting Cerberus ships.

          *You probably don’t want dreadnaughts punching holes in the inside of the Citadel, but at the very least they could warm up their lasers and blow away a few of those Cerberus mechs walking around.

          • They just have to distract the enemy forces, though, not necessarily defeat them. A large number of very small kamikaze robot-piloted drones sent through the Mass Relay before their stealth transports would probably serve this need admirably. They have plenty of WEAPONS, after all, and it is much, MUCH easier to blow stuff the heck up than it is to defend against hordes of tiny robot attackers.

            Ideally you’d want to disable and capture enemy ships, which they seem to have the technology to do.

            The “conventional warfare” nature of most of the Mass Effect space navies are hilariously out of date even by *modern* warfare standards, anyway. They shoot each other with LASERS for crying out loud. It’s absurd.

            Heck, in ME they even state that the Mass Effect engines generate enormous electrical fields that have to be discharged. That’s energy potential, meaning that you can power an enormous number of attack drones off one ship. Your engine is a power plant as a *side product*.

            Cerberus also has access to all that Reaper tech they got from the Collectors–and the Collectors DID use a “hordes of tiny robots” attack method in ME2 to assault the colonies. And, unlike the galactic superpowers, CERBERUS USES REAL AI.

            • Poncho says:

              LASER is really only used in ME to against small fighter-class vessels. Refraction and distances make an effective long-range LASER extremely suboptimal: you’re always spending more energy in the process of creating the LASER than the target is going to receive. They’re extremely accurate (light-speed weapon) but anything larger than a fighter (about 1/10th the mass of a frigate) would just dissipate the energy like it does with anything else. The Codex calls this system GARDIAN.

              They really use mass-driven tungsten rounds, but the cut-scenes add special effects to what is essentially just a brown blob of metal flying very very fast through space.

              Reaper weapons aren’t LASERs, either, they’re streams of molten mass-driven heavy metals fired faster than any of the current races could achieve, and after Sovereign’s death, the technology was repurposed into the THANIX cannon.

              As for military doctrine, well most of it is explained in the Codex rather than shown in the game, but for space battles, it explains that most engagements tend to happen at “knife fight” ranges near Mass Relays, since those are the critical positions for moving fleets. Other engagements typically take place around whatever key positions a fleet might be defending, like a planet or an station or escort vessel.

              Given that FTL is possible within a solar-system, the attacker seems to have a clear advantage in any engagement.

              • Not to mention the fact that Mass Relays only “throw” ships, they don’t “catch” them–where the ship actually “comes out” in the destination system depends on the pilot (as the opening scene in ME informs you). They aren’t portals or doors that you can blockade a system by parking around. If you’re defending, you have to defend your assets *directly*, not an access “choke point”.

                And even a smallish planet is GINORMOUS.

                Defense in ME depends purely on the ability of the defenders to DETECT the attackers and intercept them in time. Hence why the Normandy is such a Big Deal.

                • Well, in theory you could park the relay in order to prevent anyone from using it, but you’d have to do this on EVERY relay that can get even CLOSE to your territory (because between-system FTL exists) assuming you even KNOW where they all ARE. The number of ships you’d need to do this would probably be far in excess of the number you’d need to just defend your assets.

            • Heck, they could simply send a few ships through with instructions to say “hey, we’re from the Alliance, we’re here to help, bad guys right behind us! Let’s get in a defensive formation and give em hell!” The Salarians/Turians/Whatever group up, the incomers blow their engines and knock out the defensive ships, and the Cerberus ground crew can come right through and do what they like.

              An AI is bound to be smart enough to pull a spoof like that, and people are, sadly, incredibly vulnerable to this kind of thing, particularly when they know the majority of their fleet is doing exactly this kind of desperate defense all over the galaxy.

              To sum up–you’re not trying to build a battleship. You’re trying to fit out dozens of small vessels that you can buy *completely legitimately* with explosives/stealth/weapons in order to support an even smaller force of ground troops that are seizing particular objectives, and the opposing forces are dealing with a massive invasion of vastly superior enemies at the same time.

        • Arstan says:

          Actually, this fits well. Because cerberus fleets had not so many space fights – Grissom (4 crusiers against 1 Normandy), Cerberus base (don’t remember well), and also Omega station (althrough it was mostly a battle against Omega’s own defences). So yeah, mostly they are just troop carriers, not dreadnoughts.

        • ehlijen says:

          There are several times we see cerberus fleet assets in action:
          -at Grissom academy the normandy plays cat and mouse with a cerberus cruiser (frigate vs cruiser + fighters, not a good match so Joker doesn’t engage)
          -on tuchanka you can capture cerberus controlled ground-to-orbit guns to damage another one (the one time we see a cerberus ship lose)
          -Omega DLC has a fleet battle between cerberus and Aria’s mercenary fleet (merc fleet gets shredded due to upgraded Omega defences)
          -Hackett’s fleet engages the cerberus fleet in a space battle around their HQ (outcome isn’t shown, but it’s implied the alliance fleet won with significant losses)

          In general, cerberus appears to be operating fully capable warships, not refits. Their ships look like alliance cruisers with turian ship wings added (similar to the normandy ones), and I recall something about Hackett or the mission briefing for the HQ assault saying that ship for ship, cerberus has the better tech.

          So no. Cerberus built warships from the ground up. Refitted commercial vessels would never match the power to weight ratio and armour quality of a military vessel. It’s not economical and at least some of the components would be restricted, so no civilian company would try to build the hulls like that. And if the hull’s not built for it, you’re not gonna get it retrofitted to those specs without essentially a full rebuild.

      • NoneCallMeTim says:

        As someone doing a degree in mechanical engineering, I like this solution.

        If the manufacturing from the universe isn’t mainly automated anyway, they are doing something wrong.

        However, the sheer number of mooks needs addressing.

        To go back to the island idea, rather than the main game, to produce ONE ship isn’t that difficult through getting people to overproduce, scooping up the parts, then assembling it in your base, that isn’t so large in terms of resources, but the sheer scale of it is not extensible.

        • Well . . . keep in mind they basically rebuilt Shepard from scrap.

          Their mooks may be grown (or at least, trained) in a lab. I mean, we know they had at least one facility dedicated to creating biotic super-soldiers (Jack). And we know that tons of people went missing in the Terminus systems without the Alliance giving a fig about it. We only have TIM’s word that the Collectors took them all. Or, ANY of them except for that once place where Shepard goes during the Collector attack.

          • In fact, if you accept the “TIM was working for The Reapers all along” premise as true, all that business in ME2 with the Collectors may have been a complete diversion; Harbinger was a crazy/rogue Reaper who was doing something nonsensical, and the actual point of ME2 was to:

            1. Send Shepard around the galaxy to recover Cerberus assets.
            2. Get rid of Harbinger and Harbinger’s whacked out “Human Reaper” plan.
            3. Get sufficient functional Reaper technology into Cerberus hands for the next part of the plan to be put into effect.

            So, pretty much Cerberus was supposed to be building all the staging areas and so forth for the Reaper invasion and then Harbinger was supposed to hook up with them for the final stages of the plan, but Harbinger went bonkers and started doing his own thing (including attacking Shepard), so Cerberus picked up Shepard, fed him a line, and sent him off to deal with Harbinger and acquire the assets Cerberus needed. That’s why Shepard being a “hero, a bloody icon” mattered–because his reputation combined with the Harbinger situation would make it appear that Cerberus must be working AGAINST the Reapers instead of FOR them.

            This would also explain the nonsensical decision about whether to let Cerberus have the Reaper leftovers or not at the end of ME2.

            I’m not saying “see it makes perfect sense if you headcanon it enough!”. The writing was still terrible and nothing makes any sense. But if things HAD actually been EXPLAINED this way in the game the events *as they stand* COULD have made sense.

            Well, up to this point, anyway, there’s still more nonsense to come, I know.

            • Poncho says:

              I feel like this was official to all the writers, they just forgot to actually include it in the game.

            • Duoae says:

              While having Harbinger as a rogue agent of the Reapers can be read to make sense, I prefer the opposite conclusion because it fits better with Cerberus as we know them:

              Cerberus is a rogue cell of the Reapers.


              • It’s all looney anyway so whatever makes you the happiest.

                • I kind of like the “explanation” that Cerberus was working for the Reapers all along because it fundamentally changes the story–Humans didn’t defeat the Reapers, they were the Trojan Horse that allowed them into the galaxy this time and ultimately created a horrific disaster that destroyed the Mass Relay system and probably sent the entire galaxy back to the Steam Age if not further.

                  It makes the bullcrap ending of ME3 simultaneously much better and much, much worse.

                  • Mike S. says:

                    Can you unpack that? Taken at face value, if there are no humans the Reapers return when Saren opens the door for Sovereign, and if there’s no Cerberus then the Collectors finish building the human-Reaper which… does whatever they planned for it to do. (Redo Sovereign’s plan? Something else?) Eventually, either that works or the Reapers come back as they did in ME3 and begin the attack six months earlier via the Alpha Relay because humans aren’t there to blow it up.

                    There’s an argument to be made that humans didn’t help much , ending the Cycles in favor of one of three variably costly and disastrous outcomes. But I’m not seeing the Trojan Horse aspect– with no humans or humans but no Cerberus, the Reapers return regardless. With no deus ex machina Crucible plans from Mars to change the outcome, they presumably win the usual way of exterminating all the relay-using civilizations, and then head back out to Dark Space.

                    • Saren initially went to work for Sovereign because he developed an extreme dislike for humans after the First Contact war.

                      If it weren’t for humans uncovering the Crucible on Mars, when the Reapers came through they simply would have destroyed civilization as in the past. It wouldn’t have resulted in the blanket destruction of the entire mass relay system along with whatever additional catastrophe Shepard chose (and I regard all 3 possible endings as unequivocal catastrophes).

                      The story is stupid and nonsensical if you regard Shepard as a hero. If you regard this as a tale of horrific destruction it’s put together much better (although I don’t regard that as a story really worth telling).

                  • Duoae says:

                    I always really liked the indoctrination theory as well. It just made the dream sequences make so much sense… and the starchild!

        • Ant says:

          The humans parts are explained : Cerberus can brainwashed and convert any adult into an elite soldier, and they manage to scam at least one hundred thousand people. It’s tiny compared to the army of the alliance but it doesn’t really matter : the army of the alliance are busy losing badly a total war against the Reaper. This crucial point makes any comparison with current America or the cold war worthless : a better one would be Iceland against Germany in 1944, with Iceland receiving help from a wizard who can mind control people and raise the dead.

          Would you believe that these Icelander could do some surgical strike in Germany. Or that a few hundred Icelander could launch a successful coup in Berlin then conquer Germany with the help of Himmler and the aforementioned wizard ? If yes, you know understand Cerberus’s power.

          Remind yourself that Shephard is always fighting them because they have the same objectives, not because Cerberus is everywhere.

  3. CliveHowlitzer says:

    The other major issue with the secret army is the idea that you somehow think all of your soldiers are going to stay quiet about your base of operations when they get caught on one of the many many missions you send them out on. None of which that actually advance your goals.

    I feel like at some point someone would have just put a bullet into TIM’s head and just opened TIM Island as a sovereign nation.

  4. Chris says:

    “Once you get past a certain threshold, everyone’s problems are the same: fortifying your island and hiding the heat signature from your fusion reactor.”

    Science fiction settings give you one possible get-out: robots. Self-replicating workers aren’t impossible in a setting like ME, and they get around a lot of the problems with an organic workforce: automatic loyalty, easier to import/manufacture, no entertainment or food requirements, and with the right AI you can make experts in any field on demand.

    The secret shipping problem, on the other hand, is actually much much worse since all traffic needs to be funneled through the mass relays and is very easy to observe.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      And robots are precisely why we can easily swallow the idea of geth splintering into factions,each of which is capable to wage war with everyone else.Its really easy to do so when all of your dudes are self replicating machines.But as soon as you inject squishy organics in the mix,the whole proposition falls apart.

      • Actually secret shipping is an incredibly easy problem to solve. Just build a fuel depot. All the reason you need for ships to stop there.

        Space shipping is mostly going to consist of ferrying small, lightweight items, like computer components. Space travel itself is so expensive that heavy raw materials transport is way more expensive than just making whatever you need where you are. (Also why planets that are shy of important resources probably never get developed–it’s easier to find a planet that has what you need and locate your facility there than to ship the raw materials from one planet to another.) It’s very easy to load and offload small, lightweight stuff under the cover of taking on fuel/dumping waste for disposal.

        You don’t have to HIDE your site. You have to hide what parts of your site are FOR. Hiding something in plain sight is much easier than hiding it altogether.

  5. Brian says:

    When dealing with logistics, quantity has a quality all its own (sorry uncle Joe). To begin with, I absolutely agree with the points as presented, but life becomes easier with a) asteroid mining, and b) your own planet.

    While a small island doesn’t produce enough content/logistics services to keep people happy, the “externally funded” oil countries can give us a pretty good model for “how to pamper a populace.” (Let’s ignore the fact that we can’t eat money.) With our own “colony”, network engineers, entertainers, and coders in the background, lavishly funded with imports due to other-people’s-money, much of the “discontent” can be reduced, resources become easier to achieve (go out to the literal middle of nowhere and mine an asteroid) and things become self-sustaining.

    The crucial measures here are: “what are the necessary external inputs to the system” (grow the internal system large enough and that goes right down to “blueprints for the next stage of tools to build the last blueprints we got”) and you effectively have a small planetary civilisation. If we can co-opt a colony who isn’t really expecting to communicate home much (perhaps “accidentally” knock out comms) a sufficiently automated and generous regime can make a colony willing to build warships for “out there.”

    And, if one is a megacorp (or three) tasked by the “real” government for making these sorts of blueprints, this sort of industrial espionage-at-scale (and more to the point, systems and operational experience at scale) is… possible? But, we might as well call this planet “new earth, same great people, brand new management!” and… try to figure out why we care about the original dirty earth at all.

    But yes, this is absolutely one of those problems which is only solvable on the national scale with secrecy requiring an absolute bottleneck and no imports beyond information. And assuming wonderful governance and propaganda management from an evil corporation.

    For our narrative models, we can use colonial times with the equivalent of “England keeping Australia secret.” — It… could work, so long as all trips there were one-way only and people *really enjoyed* the new world and thought they were going to *some other colony.* After a few generations (this time helped by significant automation) it could be a lovely, rather deranged, secret powerhouse who has no intention of obeying England’s orders.

    From a historical sci-fi point of view, the megacorp opposing the Galactic Patrol (1930’s sci fi. Galactic Patrol, Doc Smith) achieved this very thing. And even then, Doc Smith had to give them “have control over government” and “be the largest interplanetary corp” to make it even vaguely realistic. (after a few minutes, I just realised that I had to claim that doc smith’s worldbuilding was vaguely realistic in order to justify this. … whelp.)

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Sure,such a thing could work.But it would a)hardly be secret and b)would require way more than a couple of years.Because one of the things Shamoose didnt mention up there,even if you manage to do all of those things,building such a huge thing takes a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG time.

      • Arstan says:

        Yeah, those timings in ME universe are insane. 2 years and everyone is using mechs all of a sudden? 1,5 years more and suddenly space fighter craft is feasible? And cerberus or not, no one can build tens of battleships in 1,5 years, no way!

        • Poncho says:

          There’s another issue of time that the writers completely failed to consider, which is one of the most laughable mistakes of ME2/ME3, as it amounts to basic arithmetic.

          The populations for colonies in the Terminus systems make ZERO sense.

          Let’s look at Horizon. Surveyed 18 years ago, Horizon received pilot habitation four years later; the colony proper is now eight years old., and has a population of 654,930 in 2185. That’s a growth rate of 81866 people per year, or about 224 people per day.

          “Horizon has attracted numerous dissidents, marginal people, and fringe-dwellers from across Alliance space.”

          That’s an INSANE growth rate. Is the Alliance bleeding over 200 people per day to a single colony? What the hell is going on if people are choosing to flee the relative safety of Alliance space to the dangerous Terminus systems in hordes? This a mass exodus of humans. People would be leaving earth in droves, the colonies would be resource-strapped to handle such a massive intake of civilians. Even if there are aliens in the mix, too, the numbers still don’t add up, and there was no indication in the games that Horizon was anything but a human colony.

          There are just so many instances where verisimilitude would be a lot easier if the writers had a proper scale of TIME.

          • guy says:

            Over two hundred per day out of a population of several billion does not strike me as outlandish. That is 0.009% of Earth’s current population.

          • djw says:

            Between 1630 and 1640 around 13,000 puritans immigrated to North America. The population of England was around 5.6 million at that time.

            Scale that up by a factor of at least 100 to get a comparison with circa 2100 population levels, and it is pretty easy to believe that ~1 million people would immigrate to a space colony.

            • djw says:

              Note that I do find it completely nuts that Humans would be competing with aliens on the super short time scales given in ME, but that was a problem in ME1 too.

  6. MrGuy says:

    Also, governments like to collect taxes, which means they’re pretty damn good at figuring out where the money goes, because the people who PAY you money file taxes.

    They are less good than you might think.

    • Raygereio says:

      Governments really are pretty darn good at it. Once they start looking, that is.
      The big trick to tax schemes is to not attract attention in order to avoid audits. That and abusing the hell out of the holes the various laws don’t cover. But avoiding attention is the most important bit.

      • Richard says:

        Technically, the loopholes are (mostly) created by the unintended consequences of the tax laws.

        A law that says “You must pay the Government 20% of your annual profit” is very hard to avoid.
        – You have to redefine ‘profit’ to avoid it. Profit is a fairly clear concept, and all companies need to be careful to get it right as their owners/shareholders get annoyed if it’s wrong.

        If they then add a law saying “But if you spend X on thing A, you pay X/Y less tax”, then you can start trying to figure out what stuff can be turned into an A.

        Current tax law contains a very large number “But if…” clauses.

        • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

          Profit is not an even remotely well defined term. Profit=Revenue-Cost of Doing Business.

          “Cost of Doing Business” is an infinitely malleable concept. Paying off investors: cost of doing business. Paying off loans: cost of doing business. Paying for materials: cost of doing business. Paying workers: cost of doing business. Paying for office space: cost of doing business.

          OK. What if they are very lavish office spaces? What about benefits for workers instead of just wages? What if we buy the materials in bulk and use them over a seven year period? What if the company decides to raise capital from selling stock rather than borrowing money? What if the investors are paid with stock instead of dividends?

          Those are, respectively, the reasons for rules governing deductions for home offices, deductions for health insurance, the rules for depreciation schedules, the rules for capital gains taxes, and the rules for corporate taxes.

          And very few loopholes are accidental -your unreasonable loophole is my legitimate cost of doing business.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      The governments KNOW about it, they just don’t have laws in place to STOP it. Those are entirely different things. Even if Apple used that billion dollars to fund building iPhones, the instant those iPhones left the bonded warehouses onto US soil, that would be returning profits and taxable.

  7. Jarenth says:

    Thousands of highly trained, skilled, and opiniated people from all across the world isn’t just going to lead to ‘disputes’. Given that you’re basically building a society, these people are going to want a say in the matter.

    Hope you enjoy running against your own Chief Engineer in the TIM Island midterm elections!

  8. SAeN says:

    Shamus to provide a good real-world comparison to this, the Manhattan project took place off the grid and had an entire town with people’s families living on it. Yet the soviets still found out and got information out of spies placed within it.

    • Steve C says:

      That’s a really good point. It’s also important that the Soviets were allies at the time. (Untrusted, but still allies.) Their enemies (Germany & Japan) never learned of the project.

    • 4th Dimension says:

      but Manhatan project was done within borders of a sovereign nation under it’s direction. And that nation possessed vast tracts of relatively uninhibited land. So hiding a small city in a LARGE nation is a lot simpler than hiding from other powers in neutral places.

  9. natureguy85 says:

    This was a fun read. However, you didn’t focus on my biggest issue: time. People will think of excuses for most of what you mentioned, no matter how hard you roll your eyes. It’s easier to work secretly on a hidden planet in space than an island on Earth (actually a legitimate one, I think), they do it on Noveria or a similar planet, they did it out in the Terminus systems where nobody cares, they have lots of willing human supremacists that sign up for the cause, or they Indoctrinated people. Whatever. So lets extend your generosity and say that other resources, such as people, are also unlimited.

    How the hell does Cerberus do all that stuff you mentioned and do the actual construction, training, planning, and equipping in the few months between ME2, where Cerberus was pretty well tapped out after the Lazarus Project, and ME3?

    • Matt K says:

      True, assuming your mining asteroids or the planet itself, that’s going to take a lot of time to just get you the raw materials to even begin to build the stuff. Plus a whole big group of workers trained in finding the resources, mining them, hauling them, etc.

      • Corpital says:

        With how rare E-Zero apparently is and the sheer size of the Normandy2’s Tantalus core (Normandy1 already needed enough for about 10.000fighters, if I remember the jerk admiral inspecting you in ME1 correctly), less than two years really seem ridiculous.

  10. Mike S. says:

    On a galactic scale, the other races are the United States, China, and Germany, while Humans are (say) Iceland.

    I think that seriously understates humanity’s position in Mass Effect.

    No one has ever negotiated a treaty with Iceland to limit its burgeoning naval forces. Long-established powers have never resented Iceland’s leapfrogging them. Iceland has never been invited to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council or the G8. And there’s no point at which Iceland has had the opportunity to become global hegemon.

    Humanity as of the beginning of Mass Effect is Imperial Japan on the eve of WWII: we went from nothing to Great Power without passing Go or collecting $200. (The First Contact War is our Russo-Japanese War, the Treaty of Farixen our Washington Naval Treaty, and just like them we get around those naval limitations by building carriers.)

    Humanity as of the end of Mass Effect 1 is well past that, perhaps to where Japan hoped to be if it had won WWII. At worst, we’re the fourth-ranked power in the galaxy and rising, having passed all but three centuries-to-millennia-old powers in thirty years, with no sign of slowing down. At best, we’ve gone from nothing to literal galactic hegemon in the “Renegade, Council not saved” ending.

    That last strikes me as roughly as plausible as Cerberus being a galactic superpower. Even if the human fleet, thinned by a major battle, could successfully occupy the Citadel and hold it for longer than it takes the turians to mount a response, the other powers aren’t going to accept human rule just because they took over the capital and the asari lost a flagship.

    But the fact that it’s even on the table mitigates against the idea that “Humans were doing well… for a newcomer.” Humans were doing incredibly well, full stop, and the obvious trend line is the reason that managing humanity’s rise so occupies the ruling powers of the galaxy. (Going from the usual “wait a few centuries, and then maybe we’ll talk” to “Welcome to the Spectres, and the Council!” in a fifth the time it took the US to go from newly independent colonies to unquestioned superpower.)

    (I’d say unbelievably well, and think that they should have lengthened the timeline. But implausibly fast acquisition of resources and military power wasn’t new in ME3.)

    • natureguy85 says:

      You’re right, but all of that has to do with political power. They are also struggling to set up and protect colonies in the worst areas of space. Second, that’s humanity as a whole, particularly the Alliance. We’re talking about a small terrorist group.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      The only reason humans had their military limited was because the other races still wanted to have humans around.Turians couldve easily wiped out humanity if that was how they did things.Sure,humans won a few battles,but thats because they were underestimated,not because they had any real chance of winning.

      • Mike S. says:

        Sure, and in 1908 Japan wasn’t a challenge to a first-rank naval power. It shocked the world that a non-European country beat a European one at all, just as it shocked the turians to lose a battle to shaved monkeys who’d just figured out how to turn on a relay.

        A decade and a bit later, in both cases, their expanding naval power was enough of a concern that the great powers tried to freeze the balance of power in place and prevent an arms race by treaty. (You don’t worry about arms races with Iceland.)

        In both cases, the power being so limited worked around the treaty by going all-in with carriers.

        And a decade and a bit after that, Japan was able to fight a large-scale naval war against the premier powers of the day (while at the same time pursuing a large land campaign in Asia).

        At about the same point in the timeline, humanity is the first serious candidate for Council status in twelve hundred years. (For comparison, the time between first contact with the turians and their accession to the Council was about two centuries.) Also, apparently, the only naval power the turians deem worth collaborating with. (Shades of the US special relationship with the UK, where we likewise went from hostility to mutual respect and cooperation.) Shortly afterwards they’re either on the Council, or ruling the galaxy alone.

        • 4th Dimension says:

          There is also a flip side to the comparison to the Japan. While the actual fleet might be comparable or superior on ship to ship basis, Japan/Alliance never really stood a chance of wining a protracted war against the big powers let alone to crack their home systems and have their way with them.
          Seriously in Russio-Japanese war the Japanese were lucky that the most of the public was against the war in Russia especially after that fiasco in Thushashima strait. But fact of the mater was Japan was hemorrhaging money and resources by the war’s end and had Russian resolve been stifer their entire economy might have collapsed in months time. Hell the Russkies were just finally getting their supply situation in order and pushing the official response down the Siberian railway when the peace was concluded. They simply did not have the requisite resources/manpower/money to go toe to toe with the big boys in a protracted war.
          Same thing happened in WWII, and was basically predicted by Yamamoto before the beginning of the war. The Japanese and American navies “looked” equal, but Japan at the beginning was at the height of their possible power. They couldn’t field a bigger navy and not collapse their economy. While American navy was a fraction of their possible force limits. So what happened was that Japan was able to win in the short term until Americans got their industry in order, and once those happy first 6 months were over and they haven’t knocked the Americans out, they were dead meat. The only question was how soon will they fall.
          Also Japan had the advantage that it was able to expand and gain access to additional resources, which Alliance hasn’t exactly been able to do since Alliance space is still basically limited to like couple of systems.

          Simply put while excellent tech and professionalism and elan of your troops are a very strong force multiplier, it will still fall to even greater force, and cases where a smaller but more technically and professional superior nation was able to totally beat a comparable tech vise much bigger nation are VERY rare.

          • Mike S. says:

            Absolutely true.

            The situation in Mass Effect 1 is ambiguous. From the information we have, I’d tend to expect that the turians would handily win a full-scale war with the Alliance. I’m less sure about the other Council powers, since they’ve basically specialized in other than mass warfare. Ship for ship their tech is better, but everyone seems to think the Alliance carrier tactics are at least interestingly game changing. And it largely doesn’t matter, since the whole point of the current Council structure is that if the asari or salarians are threatened like that the turians come in.

            (Though we’re left with the fact that the first game flat out says that humans can take over if they choose once the Council and Destiny Ascension are gone. Somehow.)

            The Alliance can presumably beat any non-Council member species this side of the geth. (Or the Reapers, of course.) The ones inside Council space are bound by treaty to have smaller fleets, and the batarians are probably a reasonably good measure of the powers outside those limitations.

            • guy says:

              Well, the battle for the Citadel does destroy a good bit of the Citadel Fleet and weakens the other races considerably. But the implication I got was less that they could win a galactic war and more that with the council dead and attendant panic the Alliance could take control if they acted quickly to establish a new galactic government before everyone else sorted things out and appointed their new Councilors, and it wouldn’t come to an actual war.

              • Mike S. says:

                Probably that was the idea. But it’s such an Underwear Gnomes plan (“1. Consolidate control of the Citadel and appoint human Council. 2. … 3. Asari, salarians, and turians accept human galactic leadership.”) that it’s hard to see just what the thought process is.

                • guy says:

                  The thought process seems to be that with the panic from the attack, if the Alliance promptly assumes control and takes a decisive leadership role then once everything settles down people will accept it as the new status quo. Also, I think the plan was always a reconstituted Council with the human Councilor as chairperson for a human-led Council, which is an easier sell. ME2 news reports sort of imply that the other minor races get Council seats in the reorganization, which would help legitimize the new status quo.

                  There’s also one indicating that the Turians have decided the Treaty Of Firaxin is null and void if the Council dies. Because much like the Washington Naval Treaty, the motivation actually wasn’t that they thought they’d lose an arms race. It was that they’d prefer to avoid the expense of winning one, and the other parties agreed to it because they knew the Turians/Britain could and would win an arms race if it came to that.

                  • Mike S. says:

                    I think the plan was always a reconstituted Council with the human Councilor as chairperson for a human-led Council, which is an easier sell.

                    That’s also a possibility. But you can definitely get an ending with an all-human council. Udina: “The new Council must rule with a single voice. It must be assembled from one species alone — humanity!”

                    (See at 4:42.)

                    I think the difference (for a Renegade) between human-led and all-human is between “Concentrate on Sovereign” and “Let the Council die!”, which both have the effect of the Destiny Ascension being left to fend for itself, but with different underlying motives for Shepard. (In the video above, Shepard makes it clear, to Anderson’s horror, that he was intentionally taking the opportunity to eliminate the Council.)

                    I think that carries through to ME2 as well, with references to “the former Council races” in announcements. ME3 has the multispecies replacement Council regardless.

                    The justification for how it’s possible: “The Citadel fleets were decimated in the attack. Their losses have made the Alliance stronger. If we step forward now, nobody will be able to stop us!”

                    Massive turian fleet that was completely uninvolved in the Battle of the Citadel? Salarians not measurably affected? Nothing in the situation giving humans the strategic capability to enforce their will, nor the political capital to demand such total power be freely given? No problem!

                    (“Guys, thanks loads, but the krogan spent decades protecting us from the rachni, made substantially lesser demands than you are now, and, well, have you seen Tuchanka lately? Stand down, and we’ll get you some shiny medals and maybe we won’t rethink that Council seat.”)

                    One of several reasons I’m unconvinced, with all respect to Shamus’s thesis, that there’s a massive discontinuity in attention to detail and plausibility between the games.

                    • guy says:

                      The Turian fleet was devastated in the battle; the Citadel Fleet is drawn from the fleets of the Council Races under joint command and was primarily Turian. The ME2 news reports state that the Turians haven’t yet rebuilt their losses from the battle. As for the references to “former council races”, the news reports imply that the humans aren’t the only race with a new seat, though it does imply that at least one has lost their old seat.

  11. Whiteadder says:

    I fell a little dirty defending this game, but some counterpoints need to be stated.

    1. While your points are valid for a organization operating on Earth, the Mass Effect universe operates on a much larger scale. Mass Effect 1 establishes that the relay network is massive, spanning hundreds if not thousands of charted systems throughout the galaxy, many of which are rich in resources, but uninhabited. Countless other systems are unmapped. Cerberus (being a illegal/clandestine organization) will probably have no issue with going off to some remote or unmapped region that nobody bothers with watching regularly. Lots of missions in the series have Shepherd going to a charted system, and finding lots of resource rich planets that nobody has bothered with for decades, and finding hidden ruins, or pirate bases, or hidden government facility’s, so entire cities are not outside the realm of the possible.

    2. Future tech solves a lot of logistical problems. You don’t need janitors/cafeteria workers/stevedors because that’s all handled by robots, or experimental nanotech, or whatever. Mass Effect generators are way more efficient then anything we currently have, so you’d only need one or two to power your hidden city. Initial construction is less of a problem when you have prefab colony’s that are designed to be plopped down on a uninhabited planet, or you’re capable of using your future 3d-printer to make nearly anything you want if you feed it a asteroid or two. Hell you can just build/move a space-station to your uninhabited system if you want, claiming afterward that it had been “lost” or destroyed by space pirates.

    3. Communication with the outside world is not a issue when there is no “internet”. The games do establish that communication with the larger galaxy requires access to ‘nodes’, so if your secret outpost doesn’t build a node you don’t run the risk of leaking your secrets. If your people need technical information or ‘entertainment’ you just buy a digital library and let everyone on the base use it.

    4. Mass Effect has established that there are remote research bases, and factory’s that operate without government oversight/interference Noveria being one of the most spectacular. All Cerberus has to do is declare their hidden factory city and while it does lose it’s hidden status nobody is allowed to come inside to notice the death robot assembly line.

    5. Cerberus has shown (admittedly badly) that they are capable of recruiting highly skilled personal. Look at the Normandy in Mass Effect 2, a entire warship staffed with highly skilled personal, and no larger outcry from the galactic community (at least until the bloody icon shows up :) ) While the fact that all the Cerberus operations we visit have experienced some sort of catastrophe, why would Shepherd go to a Cerberus base where everything was working as intended? There could be countless Cerberus facility’s where nothing goes wrong, and the personal do their jobs in the happy ignorance of the organizations larger failures.

    Having stated all this, I still think making Cerberus the primary antagonist in Mass Effect 3 was a monumentally stupid idea. It just stretches the limits of what I’m willing to believe. Sure I’ll buy that they’re capable of fielding some black ops teams, I might even believe that they’re the financial backbone of some larger group, but a massive galaxy wide invasion is a bit much. I just don’t buy that there would be so many mooks willing to join up with Cerberus on the scale shown here. If the writers had them as part of a coalition of bad guys it maybe would have worked a bit better, but I get the feeling that you’d need at least two whole other (good) games to build that sort of background.

    • Echo Tango says:

      The problem with having magical science-robots that build things cheaply and efficiently, is that there should be zero uninhabited planets left to build on. Every single one of the remotely-useful planets ought to be fully populated with robot factories. A bunch would be owned by wealthy people who use them as their weekend getaway. Lots would have entire nations inhabiting them. There just wouldn’t be anywhere left that’s useful to TIM, that’s not already in use.

    • wswordsmen says:

      **** I posted a long response about how most of what you said doesn’t work and it got lost.

      Disclaimer: I am not trying to attack you, although at some points it looks like I am.

      Anyway here is the short version

      1) The space isn’t the problem, the problem is that you can’t get the stuff without people noticing that stuff is going to the middle of no where and then governments investigate.

      2) That replace the problem of lots of people who are easy to find, with fewer harder to find people. This means that while it helps with secrecy it won’t solve the problem.

      3) The workers will want access to the galactic internet. While it is more isolated it still exists and high skilled workers would feel they are entitled to it.

      4) Novaria doesn’t count because if the Citadel didn’t like them they would forbid anyone from utilizing Novaria. Cerberus bases would be more like real world ISIS bases are.

      5) The costs (of all sorts) of getting X people of a certain type is more than X(difficulty of the first person) an the graph of difficulty increases at an increasing rate (second derivative is always positive). This makes the task Cerberus was shown to do in ME2 not very comparable to ME3 Cerberus. Also Men In Black is a good example of an organization with the powers of Cerberus that makes a good story.

      The problem isn’t that there can’t be a solution to this, it is that trust was lost so the writer can’t say their is without actually showing us how they did it.

      **** I thought the other post was actually really good and was proud of it.

      • Wide And Nerdy ™ says:

        To add to your point, how does TIM have automated tech so much better than the rest of the galaxy that he can build a military to rival any of them when they’ve all been around longer and have plenty of reason to have larger militaries than they do.

        How does TIM’s automated tech do that when Earth’s automated tech is struggling to get colonies going in the Attican Traverse? Surely the colonies would have had fleets ready (since it was made clear to Earth Alliance that they wouldn’t have Galactic Council backing in the Traverse) if the automated tech could produce such. The colonies were a larger scale organization than anything TIM could manage in secret and they had need to produce their own military.

        TIM would mostly be limited to VI too just like everybody else. EDI is the only known example of successful Cerberus AI. All other Cerberus AI that we’ve seen has gone berserk. And we’ve seen that VI is pretty limited. Liara’s VI (which she inherited from Shadow Broker) in the third game is outright stupid.

      • Mark says:

        > Cerberus bases would be more like real world ISIS bases are.

        You mean that despite every major power claiming to be at war with Cerberus, they’d never actually get around to attacking their bases for some reason?

  12. Christopher says:

    Look, they probably just snuck up on all the soldiers and war machines and stuck balloons on their asses.

  13. Andy says:

    If they have trillions of dollars, can’t they just buy weapons from Interplanetary Russia?

  14. wswordsmen says:

    In the real world what you do is have the US build it for you, putting in extra tax money so no one complains about the extra expense, and alter the documents after the fact to say that it was never supposed to be built, let alone actually built. That way you get the ship at cost, plus what it takes to bribe the people you need, with no infrastructure costs. People will question what was going on, but it is unlikely enough will do so if the records of the government ordering it don’t show up, but everyone still got paid for it.

    That still means you need to find a lot of morally compromised people in very specific positions, but it does simplify the problem to “that might happen” levels. The government itself does this with “black” projects, of course they have the advantage that no higher power will come through to audit the books and punish the people who get caught.

  15. Lazlo says:

    I kind of feel like we might be at a point in time where building a “modern” battleship is uniquely difficult to do surreptitiously. Go back a few thousand years, and a “modern” battleship is made of relatively abundant materials (wood), and while it requires skills to build, those skills aren’t incredibly specialized or hard to teach. Also, the difference between a “warship” and a “merchant vessel” is mostly about whether it’s filled with valuable goods, or with angry warriors with pointy things.

    Now, posit that in the world of ME3, Cerberus Shipping, Inc. puts out an RFP saying “we need big shipping ships, so we’re going to buy a 3D printer capable of printing ships up to 100 cubic kilometers in size. Must be fully automated. Once we have that we will supply it with our own ship designs and will put out additional recurring orders for raw materials.”

    • wswordsmen says:

      Older warships means using technology available at the time, which means to do any of it in secret you will need a whole lot more farmers and land to just feed the people. The skilled workers needed to do it would also be even rarer and more valuable than today, which means they would be missed more.

    • Gethsemani says:

      If you think shipbuilding wasn’t specialized just because ships were made of wood you’ve got some learning to do. Building a ship is a lot more then just nailing a few boards together and making them float. It requires understanding of buoyancy, sea conditions, sea worthiness and how to design a ship that doesn’t flip over in the first storm, that doesn’t heave so much it becomes impossible to work on it and is streamlined enough to make good speed. It also requires understanding of winds, the properties of sails and the different cloths used to make sail, the maximum tensile strength of your masts and how much sail it can support before breaking from stress. It requires understanding about how to shape and transfix wood and how the elements will affect the wood.

      The truth is that back in the day, no matter if the ship was a Roman galley, a Norse longship or a Hanseatic Cog, shipbuilding was a big project that required lots of educated specialists to create a seaworthy vessel, doubly so if it was a military vessel. It wasn’t enough to have one shipbuilder teach a few peasants who had never seen the sea before how to nail boards together, you needed hundreds of skilled laborers being directed by dozens of highly educated and wealthy specialists who all oversaw the area of their expertise (one for the hull, one for the sails, one for the masts etc.).

      • tremor3258 says:

        But they were a lot easier to build quickly in the days of wood – Lepanto (the last great battle with oar-ships) had as its greatest material loss to the Ottomons in the skilled crew and the morale effects of such a tremendous loss, the fleet itself was rebuilt in a year pretty easily.

        • Joe Informatico says:

          The Republic of Venice was the pre-eminent naval and mercantile power of their day. The Arsenal at its peak had 16,000 workers–more than the total population of many major European cities of the time–and could produce a ship a day. The only contemporary operation even close to it in scale was its Ottoman counterpart, which employed less than 1/4th the staff.

          The fleet lost at Lepanto wasn’t rebuilt “pretty easily”: it was rebuilt by a city-sized industrial concern of highly skilled workers backed by the wealthiest merchants in Europe who’d honed their craft and processes over centuries.

          • tremor3258 says:

            And, yet, given a similar breadth of facilities, building that number of ships in the scale for a current navy would be impossible. My main point was that the current pace of naval construction is a little unusual in human history.

        • Gethsemani says:

          The fastest production time on a Liberty Ship during WW2 was supposedly less then 48 hours. That doesn’t mean that Liberty Ships could be made by any boozo without specialized tools, only that the USA had access to lots of skilled labor, an incredible industrial capacity and great engineers that could streamline the construction process. If the rate of construction was any indication of ease of construction then the USS Iowa would be easier to construct then the Swedish 17th century 1st rate Kronan (2 years, 2 months before launch versus 2 years, 9 months). This is obviously not true, since the Iowa has a displacement almost 20 times higher then Kronan (45,000 tonnes vs 2,300 tonnes), electrical systems, engines and a bunch of other highly complex components that a wooden ship doesn’t have.

          • Duoae says:

            Well, this isn’t really accurate because that building rate was only achievable with a full war-time construction pipeline behind it. That’s a complete focus on building multiple ships of a similar design and having all the parts ready.

            Liberty ships were also designed to be very simple and cheap to produce in comparison to a real war-ship. They were basically easily replaceable torpedo fodder for supply routes.

            If you want to do a full and proper comparison you need to consider what goes into making a wooden ship versus a modern ship. i.e. The time it takes to shape the lumber and then assemble it all together versus the time it takes to make the alloys to make the sheets and struts and then put them together.

            I wouldn’t include ‘insides’ like circuitry/computers or furniture because you could also disregard furnishings and ropes/sails etc. for the wooden ship too. What we’re really interested in is the superstructure time-to-build. The rest is ancillary technologies and production chains which have other uses besides just the ship we’re focused on. i.e. a Leather upholsterer can make a seat for a cabin or a couch. You don’t have a shipyard working on anything but ships.

            I doubt that there’s really a lot of difference in total construction time for the structure of a ship between the old days and the new due to the supporting service industries being tooled to do such a thing. It’s just that now we have a lot more complex stuff that needs to be verified and tested before we allow them to go out and about as part of their duties.

            Also, there’s this:

            The construction of Kronan lasted from 1668 to 1672 and was delayed by difficulties with financing and conflicts between the shipwright Francis Sheldon and the Swedish admiralty Wikipedia

      • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        I concur with this. The question is what the actual comparison is in the game. Modern warships in the contemporary world are highly specialized ships that require massive shipyards to build.

        In the ME world, they’re engines strapped to a mass accelerator. The Quarians turn a whole bunch of civilian ships into dreadnaughts. In that case, the proper comparison for Cerberus isn’t a Rogue State or terrorist cell, but England in the 16th Century, where the civilian fleet of Merchants Adventurer dwarfed the Royal Navy.

    • guy says:

      The Systems Alliance can’t rebuild its losses from the Citadel battle between ME1 and ME3 if you send them to save the Destiny Ascension. Warships in Mass Effect take considerable time to build.

    • guy says:

      Also, the difference between a “warship” and a “merchant vessel” is mostly about whether it’s filled with valuable goods, or with angry warriors with pointy things.

      That’s pretty much never been true. Merchant ships are always designed with the same goal: move a lot of cargo as cost-effectively as possible. Warships are designed to fight. In the days of galleys, that meant that warships had massive oarbanks and hundreds of rowers while merchant ships were almost exclusively sail-powered. Any war galley could outmaneuver any merchant ship in battle, and converting one wasn’t meaningfully different from putting some missile launchers on a modern cargo ship. It’s armed, sure, but that doesn’t make it a real warship.

  16. Gabriel says:

    Clearly TIM found the Star Forge. In Mass Effect: Andromeda, the player character will hunt it down and stop Cerberus from taking over the galaxy. Midway through the game, it’s revealed that you are Kai Leng.

    • Gruhunchously says:

      I know we’ve been roasting KOTOR over the past few months for various reasons, but isn’t it nice that ‘where is the bad guy getting all his stuff?’ was a legitimate plot point and a mystery that needed to be resolved?

      • natureguy85 says:

        Yes, but what makes that extra funny is that the very plot point you mention is the running joke on where Cerberus gets its stuff.

      • Peter H. Coffin says:

        Very often, in the best-written thrillers, that’s precisely the point that reveals that there is a plot at all. And why so often foreign governments are involved, as it makes a lot of the supply logistics easily laundered.

        • guy says:

          Ayup. Actually, it’s a pretty big factor in The Expanse; goes like this:

          1) A civilian ship is ambushed and destroyed by a stealth ship. It is known that only Mars makes stealth ships because this is semi-hard sci-fi and stealth ships are expensive.
          1a) A suspected member of the Outer Planets Alliance is caught smuggling stealth composites presumed to be from Mars.
          2) The civilian ship had been baited by a distress call and sent out a shuttle. The people on the shuttle survive and find the distress call had been sent with Martian military tech
          3) The most powerful warship in the Martian fleet picks up the survivors. Not liking where this looks to be going, the survivors send an omnidirectional broadcast laying out the sequence of events
          4) Broadcast is received and re-transmitted throughout the system, including to Ceres, which the destroyed ship had been transporting water to.
          5) Earth leaks information on the smuggler to Mars, and Mars promptly calls all their secret production facilities to see if any stealth composites are missing.
          6) The Martian warship is attacked and destroyed by the stealth ships; massive jamming means all pretty much anyone sees of the fight is an enormous cloud of white noise.

          And thus the stage is set: the OPA already has a grievance against Earth and Mars and basically assumes that the attack was carried out by one of them so they could get an excuse for a war by pretending they were framed and blaming one of the other factions for the attack. Mars assumes that the OPA has allied with Earth to produce a stealth fleet and staged the attack to discredit them. Earth initially assumes the OPA has allied with Mars to produce a stealth fleet and staged the attack to eventually claim it’s a false flag by Earth, then after leaking the information and determining that Mars has not been selling stealth composites to the OPA (because of course if they had been then they wouldn’t respond to the information by taking immediate inventory and giving away the location of their secret facilities due to the spike in communications traffic) Earth figures the OPA stole some stealth composites and launched the attack to trigger a war between Earth and Mars.

          Except there’s one little problem with that tidy theory: even with stolen stealth composites the OPA couldn’t possibly build ships powerful enough to destroy the pride of the Martian navy in a direct battle, and their stealth couldn’t have given them the element of surprise. The battle lasted long enough that they clearly decelerated to engage, and were detected on the way in from their drive flares. So, adding it all up, the major character on Earth realizes that the stealth ships simply cannot be from the OPA and while both inner planets could have provided them neither government did. The answer?

          They’re from Earth. The wealthiest family in the solar system and owners of Earth’s military shipyards built them; their drives are on record as having been sold to civilian shipowners. How’d they hide them from the government? Well, the man who seems to be in charge of the intelligence service is rather conspicuously dismissive of the argument that it couldn’t be the OPA because that’s impossible. Also, someone started poking around the shipyards and according to official reports committed suicide.

          • Ninety-Three says:

            The Expanse’s scifi drove me bonkers. Ceres is a low gravity environment and that’s a major plot point but of course it’s filmed on Earth so all the actors and objects move like it’s 1.00 G. Today water pours sideways on Ceres because rotating frame of reference, but tomorrow we’ll see it dripping straight down. Tuesday there’s stealth ships but Wednesday there’s drive flares which would defeat the point of stealth (you could see those engines firing halfway across the solar system and work out where the ship must be post-acceleration, stealth or not).

            I think it’s wrong to call The Expanse any kind of hard scifi, it’s just gritty soft-scifi. It lacks laser beams and aliens and psychic powers, so we naturally want to label it hard, but The Expanse has no interest in actually being realistic, it just lacks the obviously fantastical elements. Humanity figured out perfect water recycling in the 20th century, but in The Expanse, 2350 AD, taking a shower still depletes your water ration because this isn’t the kind of story where the writers care about setting details. Hell, the opening crawl tells us water is more precious than gold, taking a water-consuming shower should be a decadent luxury, but it’s not because this is soft scifi, where everything’s made up and the details don’t matter.

            • Mike S. says:

              Hard and soft pretty much have to be a continuum, not a binary, for hard sf to be much other than “Hal Clement on one of his better days.” The Expanse is harder than the Vorkosigan series is harder than Mass Effect is harder than Star Trek is harder than Star Wars. And the Expanse is softer than Niven who’s softer than Heinlein who’s softer than Clement.

              (I’m sure a few of those rankings are disputable– I’d have to think whether Heinlein and Niven are in the right order– but you get the idea.)

              I’m especially inclined to give partial credit on the gravity effects in visual media, where virtually no one this side of Kubrick in “2001” has even tried.

              • Ninety-Three says:

                I know hardness is a spectrum, my point was that hardness is about more than simply how few fantastical elements your script contains. Hard scifi is about being interally consistent and details-driven, and The Expanse can’t take two steps forward without tripping over its own details. Water is precious but showering isn’t a luxury, there are drive flares but stealth is somehow possible, belters find Earth gravity torturous but they’re fine on ships accelerating at 1.00 G, Ceres has gravity because it’s rotating but it would tear itself apart if it rotated that fast, ships travel by constant acceleration but people give distances between spaceships in kilometers rather than delta-velocity…

                The Expanse’s physics start out in the real world, but by the time they’re done contradicting themselves it might as well be Star Trek reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. Mass Effect has a lot more handwaving, but if you swallow that handwave at least things make sense.

                On a different topic, I hate the idea of giving them a pass on gravity because it’s hard to do. “It’s financially and logistically unfeasible to shoot something that looks low-G” is not an excuse for shooting a low-G setting in Earth gravity, it’s a reason to not set your show in low gravity. “We failed, but in our defense it was impossible” is fair when the task is thrust upon you, but when you chose to try, it’s your own damn fault for trying to do something you knew was impossible.

  17. Neil W says:

    Even if you somehow perform the abductions without getting caught, you now have several thousand very clever, very pissed off engineers with tools. They will simply build devices to call for help and broadcast the location of your secret base to the world.

    Or better yet, they go full A-Team/Iron Man/Volund and bust out with some cool/weird contraption. TIM is left watching a whole set of boats speeding away into the sunset as his chemical plant explodes behind him.

    Which is not say that a massive slave labour plant can’t be in a story. But if it doean’t make sense it should at least be used for something. Here’s an idea for the first half of an imaginary game:

    Shootbro McShoots, discharged under dubious circumstances from the military, is recruited by a super-secret organisation. He finds himself working for them doing all kinds of action-stealth missions. The more he does, the more he villainous he finds they are. Eventually he refuses to do any more work for them and ends up in the slave-labour camp.

    We take away all his cool equipment and replace it with a new set of improvised stuff from the engineering shed. He needs to do missions to get stuff for the mass break out. Then there’s the big set-piece escape sequence.

    The slave labour camp doesn’t make sense, but then we stage a mass break out which makes it obvious it doesn’t make sense, and it’s actually needed for the plot sothere’s a reason for it.

  18. Lame Duck says:

    Some very interesting points, but you seem to have forgotten one crucially important detail: TIM also has the help of the dialogue wheel. You say that it would be difficult to the point of impossibility to recruit the thousands of skilled staff required for such a project, but it would be a simple task of just asking them to help and when they try to say “no”, they’ll just accidentally say “yes” instead. Swearing an entire island’s population to secrecy is trivial when they never get given an opportunity to blab, regardless of how appropriate it would be for them to do so. No outside force would be able to discover what’s going on because all of the investigative options on the left would be a bunch of irrelevant questions that never address any of the myriad problems with the established cover story. It’s a perfect plan!

  19. Todd says:

    Loving this series, but still have one point to add that I don’t think has been brought up in the comments yet.

    Didn’t Mass Effect 2 establish that there is “legal” slavery in the Terminus sector, specifically focused on highly skilled technicians? Between indoctrination, rabid true believers, various mad scientists and slaves, the people necessary to build the equipment isn’t a huge issue, particularly if they have no idea they’re building it for Cerebus.

    Of course, the TIME to build such a fleet remains a problem. The only way it’s even halfway believable is if Project: Greatest Fleet EVER was already well underway in ME1.

    • natureguy85 says:

      Yes, but, like everything on Illium, the Indentured Servitude is all highly regulated and contractual. That said, there is no central government in the Terminus systems to really come after you like the Council might.

      Time has been my major sticking point. I don’t give them as much as you do. Considering the comments about how the Lazarus project used up most of Cerberus’ funds and EDI’s comments post unshackling about Cerberus being pretty small, I say they had to have done it in the months</b? between ME2 and ME3.

  20. ? says:

    Most logistic issues of establishing this secret base are shared with any off-world colony, just use whatever they are using. For best results buy from non-human corporations that don’t care about reporting to Alliance.

    “Hello, on behalf of TIMville I would like to purchase 5 Deluxe colony kits, mining equipment and state of the art orbital shipyard. Deliver to: Space, Middle of.”

    “Pleasure doing business with you, Earth-clan.*inhales* Off the record, I might know a guy who found some military grade plutonium that has fallen off the space truck, if you get my meaning *inhales*”

    • tremor3258 says:

      Pretty much – it’s easier to hide something in space or as a ‘independent colony’ – there’s so much space to hide it in. Given omni-tools’ flexibility, assuming that scales, manufacturing capability is probably not as much a concern as it is for current Navies and governments. And there’s all sorts of most resources floating around in space.

      But that’s for material – given how precious and tracked Element Zero is (and *both* Normandies’ biggest cost were the Cores, and the SR-2 was apparently a massive financial burden on Cerberus) – even with Secret Money, how did they get their hands on enough drive cores for the ships?

      • ? says:

        Normandy has a very unusual and experimental core though. For all we know it could be that cruiser’s core would be very similar to a core of a cargo freighter (or at least could be easily modified from one) and therefore available on open market. There are civilian ships after all.

        • guy says:

          I’m pretty confident that you can’t just use a civilian core in a warship; the warship needs to be able to power its weapons and barriers and maneuver at high speeds. The Normandy apparently basically had a cruiser core stuffed in a frigate because it needed extra power for its gravitic drive. You’d need the core of a much more massive civilian ship to power a proper warship, and I don’t think anyone makes civilian ships large enough for that. Sure, the Quarians attach dreadnought guns to their liveships, but that’s not at all the same thing as turning them into dreadnoughts. It’s never indicated that they’ve also got dreadnought-grade barriers.

  21. drlemaster says:

    Shamus, by the time you had finished describing the slave option, it occurred to me that what you were describing was a small-scale North Korea. And North Korea can only do what it does not by being secret; but by holding a gun to the head of a second country, while being strategically useful to another, much larger country. And by not caring how horribly inefficient they are.

    I think we all know the only realistic explanation for Cerebus: they have discovered The Star Forge.

  22. Gunther says:

    This seems a little nit-picky.

    To stay within the Earth-TIM analogy – a far easier way would be to just buy a defense contractor and then have them build it – you claim you’re making a prototype of a super-awesome warship you want to sell to the Navy (which isn’t even that far from the truth), then after it’s built you have the crew it take it out for a “test run”, then you tell everyone it failed all the tests and was scuttled. Meanwhile they sail it to your secret island lair (the crew is of course made up of your loyal followers).

    I mean; it’s still implausible, but not as ridiculous as you’re making it sound.

    • John says:

      That’s the sort of the thing that you can really only hope to get away with once. It really strains the willing suspension of disbelief that a whole fleet’s worth of ships could “accidentally” go missing.

      • Legendary says:

        And I mean, you really ideally want lots of identical ships but the thing about building (say) seventy-five identical “prototypes”, one at a time, is that sooner or later someone’s going to point out that the design hasn’t changed between failures. Even the most wasteful contractor-wannabes on Earth couldn’t get away with that kind of spending. You could avoid this by not having identical ships, but that creates a lot of logistics issues as well.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      And you’d have to find a cooperative defense contractor willing to burn its existing contracts for you. You can do that when there’s some relatively large conflict happening and you’re working from “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle, but the conflict in this series are entirely … I suppose “one-sided” isn’t really out of line. There’s no Reaper defense contractors to go to, and using Alliance contractors would mean the Alliance knowing about what’s going on, especially the fleet-building. The only other party that’s not Reaper or Alliance is arguably Cerberus, and that’s who we’re trying to justify supplying, and we’re right back to Shamus’s point.

  23. WWWebb says:

    Reaper Tech™ does actually solve all the secrecy and motivation problems (mind control FTW) and the resource ones (“I remember a good planet from 4 cycles ago”). TIM is Saren 2.0 and Cerberus are the new geth.

    The problem there is the hack writer utterly, utterly, utterly whiffed their big reveal that “Cerberus was controlled by the Reapers all along!” Also, you have to ignore most of what happened in ME2 (which would be nice… and actually kinda works).

    • Gruhunchously says:

      As has been said before, ‘Cerberus is indoctrinated’ is a decent, though by no means comprehensive, explanation for the weirder parts of their story. But then it also means that TIM is nothing more than an indoctrinated tool of the Reapers, which makes his whole character and the time we spend with him seem redundant. And the game is so very inconsistent about the whole thing: if TIM is working for the Reapers, than why does he know things that they don’t and vice versa. Why don’t the Reapers find out about the Crucible sooner? Just what the hell is going on on Sanctuary?

    • Chauzuvoy says:

      Mhmm. Cerberus here could have worked somewhat in the hands of a more skilled writer, just by being more up-front about the fact that they were pawns of the reapers. Instead, the reveal on mars is pitched as some kind of ridiculous mystery about what Cerberus is up to, and then the later mission with Miranda reveals “oh god they’re doing shady reaper stuff” and then FINALLY at the end they reveal “oh wait TIM is just indoctrinated.” And TIM being indoctrinated allows the plot to make some measure of sense. Of course he has seemingly limitless resources and no supply chain concerns, he doesn’t have to worry about the Reapers interrupting him. Or course he has seemingly perfect intel, the omnipotent space gods are feeding him targets. Of course his actions don’t support his supposed goals, he’s actually just a tool serving the reapers’ goals.

      You can’t construct a mystery out of a bunch of things that simply fail to make sense. It takes subtlety. Things have to almost make sense, and the ways they don’t have to be front and center to the conflict.

    • ehlijen says:

      ME1 established that Reaper indoctrination has a ‘controlworking mind’ slider. You can’t have both at full, and for the construction of a complex ship you need qualified minds.

      (BTW) TIM is only Saren if you ignore everything that made Saren a tragic villain and replaced it with silly string.

      ReaperTech would help, but it’s not the complete solution.

      You still
      -have the issue of large numbers of highly qualified people going missing
      -need to have these people be able to hold non-insane-cultist conversations when they get resources/more people from the outside world
      -still have to feed and train them to actually use the weapons they’re building

      At least Word of Blake (in the battletech universe) was established at having had unmonitored control of a half dozen supertech manufacturing worlds before the audience was asked the accept that they could somehow engage four enemy factions, each with at least ten times as many worlds and armies to match, for more than a decade before being roflstomped.

      Cerberus didn’t even get that. They suddenly had a fleet and an army, despite never having been shown as having the competence, desire or need for either before ME3.
      Keep in mind that TIM Island would constantly be on fire because of rogue cell mishaps.

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      The writers want to repeat the success of Saren’s arc but for some reason completely fail to do it. Saren was a tragic character, convinced that he was doing the right thing, desperately trying to balance appeasing his Reaper master, gaining information on the threat and looking for a way to counter it, his judgement deteriorating under the pressure of “soft” indoctrination, every little sacrifice giving further justification for bigger sacrifices, until the point where he turned into an obedient servant of the monster he was trying to stop and still believed himself to be the saviour of people…

      TIM is not Saren. It’s not just a matter of being “up-front” about it, the writers want to eat the indoctrination cake and have it too. Both Saren and TIM believe themselves to not be indoctrinated but Saren was consciously working with the Reapers, this put him in this awkward position that ultimately led to his downfall. TIM/Cerberus flail around showing up wherever for whatever reasons. Saren tried to stall, delay and derail Sovereign but ultimately received his orders directly from the Reaper, TIM gets his agenda… I honestly don’t know, maybe he has a court astrologer or he reads the innards of murdered civilians. Saren had access to all Sovereign’s resources (including the Geth) because he was ultimately in Sovereign’s service, if TIM receives his resources from Reapers… they do so without his knowledge?

      I made this comment earlier but it would actually be a good payoff if you could collect optional intel that pieced together would reveal that Reaper(‘s agents) are actually fueling Cerberus. Throw it into TIM’s face that the sudden billion of credits from humans in outlying systems, the numerous alien agents that they were suddenly able to recruit, the successful Cerberus raids on Reaper tech caches that they used to augment their troops and weaponry are very, very convenient, ask him why with all his paranoia he didn’t even think to question all of it. Then press him for explaining how his current actions further his agenda of human supremacy… and watch as he realizes that he’s been had and used, as the horror that he likely doomed the human race where he thought he was saving it dawns on him…

  24. Ninety-Three says:

    What other bits of infrastructure, labor, technology, logistics, or raw materials have I overlooked? What dangers have I left out?

    To touch on the major aspect you left out: TIM Town is, as you said, a town. A miniature civilization. You don’t just need all the logistical infrastructure of a town, you need all the towny features of a town. Daycares and schools for the people who brought their families, plus people to staff them. You need barbers and tailors, plumbers and carpenters and electricians for when mundane stuff breaks in the hundreds of houses you’ve built, therapists and priests and and and. Then you need even more food and houses and logistics to deal with all the new people. Then you multiply it all by a thousand because your secret factory town doesn’t just produce one destroyer, it makes fleets.

    I think someone said more or less this in the Spoiler Warning of Mass Effect 3, but Cerberus is no longer an organization, they are a nation, an entire civilization that was somehow both built and populated in total secrecy.

    • WWWebb says:

      Unless in ME2, not all the Collectors’ kidnapped humans were going into the Reaper Vitamix machine. What if most of the kidnapped humans became Cerberus? The details of how many colonists disappeared were always vague.

      Even better, what if some of the colonies were Cerberus sympathizers from the start? After all, they left Earth in the first place to get away from the Alliance. One day they just get back on the colony ship and move to a new, uncharted Cerberus base. Then Cerberus spreads the rumor that the colony was attacked by the collectors.

  25. arron says:

    This is one of the reasons that I felt that Bioshock and Rapture never worked for me. To build an entire city – in secret – would require masses of raw materials, equipment, people and in a environment (the bottom of the sea) that would hamper effective and expedient building so it would take much longer than on dry land. Add to that, you’d need to have huge acreage of areas for oxygen production, growing crops and animals for meat and milk which we barely saw in the game. All those resources to support a population of thousands you’d need in place without sunlight and soil you’d have a lot of on dry land.

    And despite this massive drawback to building a city, they apparently had technological advantages in computing, construction, biology, science and many other fields despite huge resource issues given they didn’t have access to the surface in case Rapture was discovered. And then you’ve still got this lighthouse that people still found regardless out in the middle of nowhere. Rapture makes for a great story, but doesn’t survive five minutes critical examination without the active cooperation and resources of a large government in building and maintaining such a place…!

    • Shoeboxjeddy says:

      Some things you’re not considering about Rapture.

      By the end of Bioshock Infinite, they have not one but TWO sources of basically magical powers. The eel juice as thoroughly discussed in the game and the communication with other dimensions from the Tears in Bioshock Infinite. Saying that implausible things resulted from magical powers is… yeah that’s the point of those powers in the story. The other thing to consider (about better computers and weapons and all that) is that the conceit of the city is that they took the best geniuses out of their fields (where they could have developed that stuff for the general population) and had them all at Rapture. And the whole secret thing was accomplished by them being proud and excited to go there.

      • natureguy85 says:

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but all of that was discovered after Rapture was built. The slugs were found deep in the ocean and it took time to figure out ADAM and plasmids. Vigors in Infinite were developed based on Rapture’s plasmids.

      • Ninety-Three says:

        But Bioshock 1’s Rapture wasn’t powered by Infinite’s tears, all it had was eel juice. We spent a long time in Rapture and all ADAM seems to do is let you shoot fire/ice/bees from your fingertips plus it was later adapted into some kind of vaguely-defined mind control serum. That’s magical alright, but none of that magic is going to help overcome the engineering problems associated with building an underwater city.

        Even if you can make an underwater city with fifties technology (and you can’t), why would you? Wouldn’t Ryan have had a much easier time just setting up on an uncharted island? Hell, it would be easier to build an uncharted island than to set up Rapture.

        The “they had geniuses” excuse only goes so far towards explaining the technology. We’re not talking about being ten years ahead of the curve, Rapture has death robots that can tell friend from foe, and helicopter robots that maintain stable flight even if you use a wrench to slam them into the walls. We’re still working on those today, and Rapture invented them before the integrated circuit. That’s like inventing a supersonic jet-fighter in 1920, and your explanation is like saying “Yeah, but they hired the Wright brothers to do it so they had geniuses on staff”.

        • Shoeboxjeddy says:

          Infinite retcons Rapture to have included Tears in some way from the start. And also suggests that any weird stuff may have been cribbed from a dimension where they could see how that stuff occurred normally.

          Regarding ADAM (I believe that’s what the eel juice is called), the only gameplay purpose is lightning bolts, sure. But it’s clear from the perks you put on that it literally makes you smarter or gives you other incredible powers. Faster hacking means it made you some kind of computer genius. Extrapolate this, and yeah ADAM is like the gel from ME1. You push a lot of it into story gaps and fix the problem that way.

    • natureguy85 says:

      The difference is that Rapture is the premise. You can get away with stuff like that when setting up the world in the first place. Cerberus is an established organization in an established universe that suddenly becomes something totally different. Rapture is still questionable, but because it’s established immediately and its existence is the basis of the story, we accept it under suspension of disbelief and move forward.

      • Gruhunchously says:

        Exactly, almost anyone who is going into BioShock knows that it’s set in a massive city under the sea. Similarly, Fallout takes place in a post-nuclear world where not everything has been reduced to cinders and radiation turns animals into giant mutant versions of themselves. Mass Effect itself takes place in a universe where FTL travel is possible, translator microbes allow anyone to understand any language, and most of the aliens look like humans with funny heads and appendages. But they all get away with these things because they’re ‘check at the door’ elements of the setting. If you can’t get past them, then the story will probably not work for you no matter what it does.

        But that doesn’t mean that, once the elements have been established, that the story has leeway to go around breaking it’s internal consistency. That’s why I’m always bothered by the “who cares if it doesn’t make sense, the whole premise is ridiculous anyway” argument.

  26. Jabrwock says:

    In the Honor Harrington universe, there was a rogue group that managed to build up a large fleet of capital warships in secret. The “Alignment” was a group that formed their own single-planet star nation, and they used the fact that they were “known” as slavers to hide the fact that they were in fact a secret government bent on crushing humanity and ruling over them as ubermensh (they believed in genetic superiority, and were expert gene splicers).

    They used the corruption of the Earth-based government and major weapons manufacturers to hide the construction of components needed for their fleets, using the “fell of the back of a truck” and “we decommissioned a destroyer, but really it was left with all weapons and tech intact” and “oh THIS? this is totally just a really well-built freighter, and that’s totally not a bribe sitting on the desk” methods. Essentially the same way that Office Space figured “thousands of dollars from fractions of a penny”, the Alignment got “dozens of capital ships” from “waste in the construction of a thousand”.

    However, this only worked because of the size of the “united nations” style government they were dealing with, and the fact that they developed a radical new propulsion tech that allowed them to orchestrate their equivalent of Pearl Harbour, wiping out a good chunk of their opponents fleets and shipyards in one massive timed surprise strike.

    In Mass Effect this wouldn’t work because there isn’t a big enough Earth government to allow the sheer scale of military to be built up just from the “waste”.

    • John says:

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t the Mesans also an independent and sovereign nation? That makes things a lot easier. You don’t have to hide things from the local government when you are the generally acknowledged local government.

      • Jabrwock says:

        There was a few layers there. Secret government ran the corporations that ran the cartel that effectively ran the heavily corrupt “real” government. So no different from a “corporate town”.

        The cloak of ‘legitimacy’ helped a lot, and that’s the difference between them and Tim. He’s not leading some major group of companies that pool their resources to fund a secret organization. This is supposed to be some grass-roots “humans first” group that is supposedly a small terrorist group and suddenly has itself a battle fleet and army. Imagine if suddenly the Ballroom showed up with 50 capital ships and an army before they established Torch. Heck, even after Torch was founded they found it hard-pressed to assemble more than a small fleet of less than a dozen frigates without outside help.

        At least with the Mesans they had centuries of building up this secret side operation, decades building the attack fleet, and a massive industrial military complex they could take advantage of the corruption to provide tech, ships and supplies.

  27. Dev Null says:

    This is starting to sound like kind of a fun game. I might have to go load up Evil Genius and give it another shot…

    • TMC_Sherpa says:

      One the one hand I really want a sequel, on the other hand Dungeon Keeper mobile tells me not to wish for things I might get. *sigh*

      HUMANZEE turns on cheat mode and ctrl-c gives you $10,000. The game (in my opinion) is much more entertaining if you start with a couple million dollars so you can concentrate on building a fun base rather than worrying about how you’re going to pay for it.

    • Hal says:

      Had the same thought. This scenario literally sounds like the sequel to Evil Genius. Great game!

      • Sleeping Dragon says:

        Had the same urge. Though I actually fired up Evil Genius a few months ago and found the game to be a touch on the tedious side far as minion and mission management is concerned.

  28. arron says:

    Also this is a great anti-argument why the moon landings weren’t faked. A space programme that was designed to not to work and was only for show couldn’t have sworn the thousands of people to absolute secrecy to how they faked it. Also in creating the fake rockets that people saw take off and the evidence left behind on the moon like reflecting mirrors and debris that anyone can see.

    The whole thing was done so much in the open that the conspiracy theories would almost need to invent that “fake moonshot island” existed to deliberately created a parallel moon-mission that generated all the fake footage and technology by sinister clandestine means in secret that wasn’t supposed to exist, with all the people unable to escape to tell the truth – despite everything else happening as part of the ‘real’ moon landing programme.

    • Jabrwock says:

      “Wait, wouldn’t it be cheaper to just, oh I don’t know, actually go to the moon?”

    • wswordsmen says:

      FYI You can’t see the debris, the lunar landing sites are just too small you would need a huge telescope to see them. You can however see the craters where the biggest pieces of debris (the 3rd stage of the Saturn V and other satellites we put there) hit the moon.

      • Ninety-Three says:

        You can, however, shine a laser at specific coordinates to prove that someone went up there and set up retroreflectors, and it’s well within the scope of hobbyist technology to test that.

        • wswordsmen says:

          You don’t actually see the retroreflector. You get evidence that it is defiantly there, but you don’t see it. No one can tell you what shape it is, or what color it is, without going by photos taken from much closer than Earth.

    • Nidokoenig says:

      Not to mention, the Soviets had radar and a burning desire to prove the whole thing fake, and tens of thousands of amateurs could point their radios moonward and listen in. Tracking the position of a large, reflective(where are you shunting the burning heat of the Sun to if it isn’t?) metal object in the middle of literal nothing is pretty much a solved problem.

    • anaphysik says:

      Additionally, it was technologically impossible to fake the moon landing in 1969:

      (Choice quote: “The later you were born, the more all-powerful ‘movie magic’ seems. Nowadays, it would be very easy to fake a moon landing – and we seem to have forgotten how to do it for real. Back then it was the other way around.”)

  29. Dreadjaws says:

    Shamus, all you’ve done is convince me that I really, really want to play this game. When does TIM City come out? It’ll be the city builder to rival all city builders.

  30. Ninety-Three says:

    There is a huge issue with maintaining secrecy that everyone has just skipped over. You’re employing thousands, if not tens of thousands of people. Some of those people are going to quit, or retire, or get fired. You’re going to hire a bunch of plumbers to set up plumbing, and when they’re finished most of them will eave the project. And then what do you do with them? You can’t just let them go, then they might tell someone about your secret base. Even granting restrictive non-disclosure agreements or magically perfect loyalty, with hundreds of people leaving the project one of them is going to get drunk and blab purely by accident. Lacking hyperadvanced mind-wipe technology, you’ve got to either execute or imprison them.

    But that’s not the problem. The problem is that your factory is going to have to run for years with this policy. You can’t be executing everyone who leaves the project without people noticing that Bob transferred to a new department and was never heard from again. Sooner or later, your staff are going to realize that they’ve checked in to the Hotel California. And then you’ve created the slavery problem: you have a bunch of unhappy engineers who don’t want to be there, and you somehow have to get them to be productive instead of building distress beacons and going on Iron Man rampages.

  31. Flip says:

    Shamus, according to the Codex Cerberus has trillions of credits. And TIM has stolen the plans to all of the Alliance warships. So it’s totally explained and you can’t complain about it.

    Show, don’t tell. And if you do need to tell, than do it like in ME1. Back then, Wrex talked about how Saren hired pirates and on Noveria, we discover that he has shares in multiple companies.

  32. PatPatrick says:

    Great article (like always). Too bad there is no “like” button :(

    But i think that writing so huge “bedsheet” of text to disprove stupid delusions of Bioware brainless script writers, it’s like organizing Moon Expedition, to prove that it not composed of green cheese.

    • Ninety-Three says:

      I agree, but in a world where a large portion of the public insists that every part of the moon except the core is solid cheese, maybe that expedition is worth undertaking.

      Besides, as Shamus has put it, it’s therapeutic to identify our specific grievances instead of just accepting that it’s a mess.

      • PatPatrick says:

        Besides, as Shamus has put it, it’s therapeutic to identify our specific grievances instead of just accepting that it’s a mess.

        Yeah, this articles like cool balm for the old open wound.
        Still i think this “TIM Island novel” is little overkill =)

  33. Hal says:

    By this point it almost doesn’t matter if your shipping company is staffed with perfectly trustworthy sailors who never breathe a word to anyone when they come into port to load up on supplies. All that food, equipment, fuel, personnel, and raw materials are going to require a steady stream of vessels between civilization and your island. That’s going to be really hard to overlook. I’ve hidden your anthill, but how do you plan to hide that line of busy ants?

    To be fair, the ocean is a big, big place. Assuming the worlds’ governments aren’t concerned about your ships when they leave and return, they will likely have zero notice of the traffic around your island. (Well, assuming the government hasn’t gotten suspicious about the blind spot in their satellite imagery.)

    Frankly, after reading all of this, I can only assume that Cerberus is the Terran government, or at least a “secret” faction of it, and the whole “rogue cell” thing is just a shell game played by Terran diplomats to save face with the other species.

    • Jabrwock says:

      At least THEN it would make sense how they get access to all this information and locations without anyone officially noticing. Still wouldn’t explain the fleet and army, because even a black operation is still going to need to either creatively disappear it from official books or hide the costs of building it, but it would explain how they know so much without being that well connected.

  34. Xedo says:

    Out of curiosity, what is the political status of Earth at this point in Mass Effect (beyond being eaten by Reapers)? Is it a world government, independent nations, what?

    ME1 glossed over the Earth politics to focus on humans being part of the Alliance. This kept the narrative focused but it also basically forced us to ignore something that should be a major part of the story of humanity (which is important to the paragon/renegade outlooks and Cerberus as a whole). Considering that there are some people that still don’t even like the United Nations, I can easily imagine some of our billions of people and independent nations that don’t want anything to do with the Alliance. Let alone the idea of having one person represent all of humanity. Even if he is voiced by Keith David!

    I would honestly not have much of a problem if ME had handwaved Cerberus by saying ‘human nations, corporations, and billionaires back on Earth don’t like/trust/want to depend on these alien races, so they funded an alternative whose sole purpose is to advance human interests by any means necessary, with full deniability.’ Which would have resolved the logistical issues of Cerberus acquiring this hardware and my skepticism at humanity being unified behind the Alliance. Earth’s entire situation (pre-ME3) is a great big black hole in the story to me, might as well use it to fix Cerberus…

    • INH5 says:

      Apparently, the reason that the ME games never went into much detail about what things are like on Earth is that Chris L’Etoile and Drew Karpyshyn couldn’t agree on what they wanted Earth to be like (specifically, Drew thought that humanity should be more united and the number of independent states should drop by at least 50, Chris thought that humanity should be less united and the number of independent states should increase by at least 50), that was only resolved when they made a gentleman’s agreement to just not talk about Earth too much in the games.

      You’re right that making Cerberus a sot of “Shadow Alliance” secretly funded by various Earth governments would explain a lot, especially the “recruiting highly skilled specialists” hurdle. Though that would still have problems in a version of ME3 that still has the same basic plot, since for obvious reasons Cerberus would be cut off from Earth.

      • Nimas says:

        God how much the third game would have been improved if he’d just stuck to that damn agreement.

        • Poncho says:

          IIRC, both Chris and Drew were off the ME project after ME2.

          Chris was the lead on designing the Geth, for example, and you can see their transition from incredibly interesting take on AI in ME2 to the pinochio-loving trope they turned into in ME3.

    • Mike S. says:

      Earth is an unknown number of sovereign states. (One ME1 writer pointed to things like the EU and expected fewer states in the future, one pointed to devolution and secession trends and expected more, so they left it vague.) When Prothean tech was discovered on Mars, the largest countries set up a multinational alliance to administer space, which came into its own during the First Contact War. So the Alliance is the human face off Earth (give or take illegal wildcat colonies), but Earth itself remains divided. The Alliance Parliament is “the government” from the perspective of the colonies, but more like the UN from the perspective of Terrans.

      Given that, it doesn’t seem as if any individual Earth nation is likely to have its own starfaring tech. They have the money, but it’s not as if you could develop that in secret. And if the United North American States or the EU were doing that sort of thing, we’d presumably be talking about them rather than Cerberus.

      • Poncho says:

        There’s one planet’s codex entry that talks about how a bunch of Earth nations tried to claim the same planet, so they do have some limited ability to colonize space.

  35. Mintskittle says:

    One of the biggest things missing from this article is that in every step of manufacturing, there needs to be Quality Control. Everything that ends up on your battleship needs to be made from appropriate materials to specification. The raw materials need to be chemically analyzed to ensure they are correctly blended, the machinists need to ensure the parts have been shaped to the correct dimensions, engineers to ensure they have been installed correctly, maintenance crews to ensure all your processing tools are operating within tolerance, and so on. All will be for naught if the airlock blows out on its maiden voyage because the door was made from crap material and/or installed incorrectly.

    Your plan to get a ship out with a crew of 200 will probably employ tens of thousands before all is said and done.

  36. Dt3r says:

    I’m surprised at how long it took you to mention food, Shamus. I applaud your restraint.

  37. PatPatrick says:

    By the way, i just came up an explanation for the TIM unlimited powers – he stole the Star Fortress from KotoR, and it just suck some star to spawn dozen of starships in a 8 eight-hour workday. Bang! And where is your God of logic now, Shamus?!! Mua-ha-ha!!!

  38. Octapode says:

    The first missing part that springs to mind: computers. While getting consumer-grade gear would be easy, I doubt building the requisite computer systems to run a battleship out of PCs and Arduinos would go very well or be in any way reliable, although I guess that wouldn’t be without precedent. That said, it sounds like a hell of a fun project to work on, even if it never worked out.

    Riffing on your idea of doing nothing while looking very busy, given the grade of complex manufacturing it would take to build a battleship, I imagine it would be trivial to pull a Schindler and be eternally mired in misconfiguration issues. Whatever the high-tech equivalent of clipping 1 mm off the end of a ruler is, you could keep doing that basically forever while wasting raw materials producing useless garbage. Less individually risky than going full A-Team, and it would be extremely hard to prevent when all your production, QA and design staff hate your guts and are dedicated to sabotaging your project.

    • NotSteve says:

      Definitely. I’m pretty sure anyone who’s ever had to troubleshoot things professionally, engineer or programmer, has stories about figuring out incredibly difficult to find flaws. Now imagine your entire workforce, QA included, is extremely motivated to take that knowledge and make those flaws.

      The ships would never get off the ground.

      • Scourge says:

        “See Bob, there is a slight error whenever the testpilots come over and try to use the ship on its maiden voyage.”
        “And what is that?”
        “Well, once they are in out space the seat propels them out into space.”
        “I don’t see an error there. Its working as intended.”

    • guy says:

      Honestly the computers probably aren’t a problem worth mentioning relative to everything else. Be quite the project to actually install everything, but getting consumer-grade electronics that can match the systems on decade-old warships would probably not be that difficult courtesy of Moore’s Law.

  39. Xeorm says:

    Did anyone else read this and start thinking they’d love a game where you build your secret island and actually worry about all that infrastructure? If it ever gets made, I’ll certainly name at least one island “TIM Island”

  40. INH5 says:

    I think that the problems with Cerberus in this game are a result of something like feature creep. Cerberus’s actions on Mars, Thessia, Horizon, their base (except for the base being defended by a fleet capable of standing up to the Alliance, but that’s part of the backstory and has no role in the actual mission), and some (but not all) of the side missions that they show up in aren’t that far outside their established capabilities. Even the basic premise of the Citadel mission isn’t that implausible – as recent events tragically illustrate, terrorist groups are capable of wreaking havoc in the capital cities of powerful nations. The main problem with that mission is that the level designers apparently thought that limiting Cerberus’s presence on the Citadel to a 10-20 person assassination team wouldn’t provide enough gameplay.

    But once the designers had put all of that work into creating an enemy faction, they naturally had the temptation to use it. So why not insert Cerberus into a bunch of side missions to add some enemy variety? If you don’t have enough resources to make an enemy faction of Indoctrinated Salarians, why not just use Cerberus? Once the level designers had these missions finished, they passed them off to the writers and cutscene designers who then had to justify how Cerberus got there, and we ended up with Cerberus as an inexplicable galactic superpower with fleets of warships and entire mechanized armies.

    • Coming_Second says:

      There’s almost certainly something to the feature creep/time restraints thing that explains how Cerberus got everywhere/show up as the generic bad guys in way too many missions. However it implies that the writers were entirely beholden to the level designers, which was surely not the case. At some point early on a key writer said “In this game, Cerberus are a major faction able militarily to go toe-to-toe with anyone, rather than a hit-and-run terrorist organization”. That, right there, should have been kicked into the long grass, because it’s impossible to justify and renders so many other things nonsensical.

      More than anything, the ME2/ME3 writer team really needed someone able to stand up to the guy who had a massive boner for TIM, and was willing to do anything to make his pet faction front and centre.

  41. Solvain says:

    “I’ve hidden your anthill, but how do you plan to hide that line of busy ants?”

    Isn’t that basically the plot of ME2? Tracking the minions to the hidden base and blowing it up? Funny how Shepard couldn’t connect the dots.

    • IFS says:

      Not exactly, we always knew where the collectors were coming from (the Omega relay) we needed to find a way to go through it safely, which turned out to be the reaper IFF. Now there are other plot holes that this brings up, but tracking down the collector base’s location was never the real issue.

  42. Tektotherriggen says:

    This bothered me about Star Wars too (old and new). Where do X-Wings come from? That’s not just a snarky question – the answer would tell us a lot about large the Rebellion/Resistance are, how much legitimate support they have, and so on.

    • Aaron says:

      some places in the expanded universe books talked about the fighter manufacturing for the rebels
      small single ‘bay’ shops/futuristic chopshops throwing something together for money moved into small factories on supporting/neutral planet

      but that’s extended universe. its kind of tough to come up with plausible explanations for supplying a secret army when the technology involves understanding advanced physics theory

      ie the american revolution yeah independent shops turning out single rifles at a time could provide weapons to the rebels but a destroyer? the normandy?…maybe on a galactic scale you can handwave entire hidden colonies

      • Lachlan the Mad says:

        Well, in the early days of the American Revolution at least, most of the American forces were basically farmers who already had muskets for everyday use (e.g. hunting, slaughtering). In fact, I’m pretty sure that this is part of the justification for the Rebel Alliance as well — some of their ships in the movies (e.g. those oval carrier ships they use to haul gear off Hoth) are barely-refitted civilian spaceships, and in the EU they fought their early battles with civilian starfighters (e.g. the X-Wing is, at least in the EU canon, descended from the Z-95 Headhunter, a reasonably common single-seat civilian ship). This doesn’t apply to the Mass Effect universe, though, because civilian ships don’t seem to be a thing — all the spaceships are owned by governments or corporations. Star Wars treats spaceships like modern cars and trucks, so everyone owns them; Mass Effect and Star Trek treat spaceships like modern jet planes, which most people don’t even consider buying their own.

        • INH5 says:

          Another thing about the Star Wars universe is that the scale of everything is much, much larger than it is in real life. When the government can build a space station large enough to be mistaken for a moon, a bunch of rag tag rebels being able to scrape together a couple dozen warships doesn’t seem that impressive by comparison.

        • guy says:

          The Z-95 Headhunter was an older model of space fighter and not a civilian ship; they’d been taken out of service some time previously and mostly sold off to local garrison forces or the Corporate Sector Authority, and quite a few were “scrapped” and wound up on the black market.

    • INH5 says:

      Alderaan was implied to be a major planet, and the royal family there were important leaders in the Rebellion. So I think that the Rebellion was always supposed to have significant amounts of legitimate support.

      I don’t think this was specified in the movies themselves, but the EU makes it clear that the rebel fleet seen in RotJ was largely made up of Mon Calamari (Admiral Ackbar’s species) warships, with the implication being that anger over the destruction of Alderaan, followed by the removal of the Death Star’s deterrent effect, had pushed entire systems into open revolt by that point.

      I don’t know about TFA, though, because the political situation was so poorly explained in the movie and I’m not willing to take a look at the new EU to figure out what was going on. The thought process there seems to have been “people hated all of the political exposition in the prequels, so we won’t have any political exposition in our new movie,” except that they never bothered to actually make the political situation any simpler than it was in the prequels, so the audience just ended up confused instead of bored.

    • guy says:

      The original ones were stolen, actually. They’d been produced under contract to serve as a new Imperial interceptor, but the design team defected and the rebels launched a raid on the facility and flew off with the prototypes and stole or destroyed all the blueprints. They’ve got various sources for material and production equipment to produce small numbers of them in mobile shipyards or hidden bases sourced from sympathetic shipyard owners.

      In TFA, it seems pretty clear that the Resistance is discreetly sponsored by the New Republic, which can simply send them ships and forge whatever paperwork they feel like or officially not send ships that were never built in factories that don’t exist. Governments just get to put “classified” as a line item on their budgets.

    • ehlijen says:

      As revealed in the meeting of the deathstar command staff (the scene with ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’), the emperor does not actually command most worlds directly, and without the senate, not even indirectly. Even the imperial fleet was, at that point, apparently not enough to maintain control through force because the deathstar would be needed to rule by fear.

      So, in a galaxy full of worlds that don’t like what’s happening and with governments not directly aligned with the empire (otherwise ruling by fear wouldn’t be needed), it’s quite believable that the rebellion could recruit a sizeable infrastructure.

      And it’s never said in the movies that the rebellion builds any of their war materiel (nor even that x-wings are superior to tie fighters; that was an invention of the computer games later). It’s quite believable to say most of it was stolen from surplus or imperial stockpiles. Cerberus building a secret super-fleet up their sleeve in a galaxy not in open revolt is a different matter.

  43. Mersadeon says:

    I probably would have swallowed the “infinite resources” handwave better if they had at least a figleaf of justification for it. Like, the Collector-base you (might have) left Cerberus hat a well of infinite energy or unimaginable amounts of E-Zero in it or something.

  44. Aaron says:

    wow, that was a very good thought experiment that highlighted everything thats wrong with Cerberus in me2/3

    also ive started to notice some potentially hidden messages “look extremely busy without getting any work done, and will spend all their time plotting revenge or escape”

    dont worry shamus another 30-40 of these and you can be free of mass effect

  45. kdansky says:

    You forgot to mention that your example was about secretly building a medium sized warship based on 50-year old plans, not a fleet of futuristic interstellar combat space ships. This is orders of magnitudes more difficult!

    The advances in fabrication we make don’t come close to the advances we need to get to higher tech levels, and worst of all, you cannot even use the complex infrastructure we already built! Try to build a mechanical calculator from scratch, then compare to building a computer.

    To put it in perspective: Intel only has 6 (six) plants capable of building 14nm chips right now. Intel does not have seven not because they don’t want it (they have multiple more sites that are running older productions), but because doing so is prohibitively expensive and difficult, even though they already have the know-how and the engineers.

  46. Rosseloh says:

    My goodness that was detailed.

    AND I got off on a Wikipedia tangent where I started out on the article about Aircraft Carriers (a good one that I’ve read before) and ended up on the page for the Black Baron, a WWII tank ace, after about 20 other articles.

  47. Thomas Adamson says:

    This sounds like an awesome city builder or dwarf-fortress clone.

  48. Vect says:

    If I recall, according to the Omega DLC, Cerberus’ control of Omega also puts them in control of a massive Eezo supply, which might explain a few resources questions (and probably meant to justify why Aria is so damn powerful for being a Space Pirate Queen). Otherwise, I just think that the writers are using both Future/Reaper Tech as a handwave (anyone who didn’t try to get out is indoctrinated/a dedicated human supremacist) and the fact that they probably modeled Cerberus after Bond Villain organizations like SPECTRE where you have a criminal organization with nigh-infinite resources ruled by an egomaniac.

  49. AJax says:

    Shamus, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out this loud since I discovered the site years ago. Can’t wait for the next entry!

    “A hack writer might imagine the world is full of inert dunces that just sit around and wait for the plot to happen to them, but in the real world people think about the future, appraise risk, and pursue goals.”

    Oh god LOL

  50. INH5 says:

    One minor quibble with your article:

    I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but the ship isn’t much use without weapons. And you’ll need the specialized explosives to make the weapons work. You can’t buy that stuff, so you’ll need to make it yourself. You’re going to need a chemical plant for that, which means hiring or kidnapping chemists and a staff to support their work and acquiring all the various chemical components without creating a paper trail anywhere. You’ll need a way to dispose of the waste from the chemical plant because that stuff can be pretty dangerous and might make a mess that would give you away.

    I actually don’t think it would be too hard for someone with the established hypothetical amount of money to arrange a covert purchase of this kind of thing from, say, North Korea.

    Even if you couldn’t purchase it, manufacturing it might not be as hard as you make it sound. A frighteningly large number of terrorist groups have managed to synthesize chemical weapons in secret (for example), and while I’m not a chemist I would guess that these kinds of specialty explosives aren’t much harder to make than nerve gas.

    On the other hand, Wikipedia says that the primary armament of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer is various types of guided missiles. Making those definitely would require all sorts of additional infrastructure.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      You can make a few bombs covertly.You can even buy a bunch of handgun bullets on the black market.But covertly buying or making a plethora of artillery rounds?Those things are huge,and a single destroyer uses a lot of them.

  51. Zaxares says:

    I definitely agree that what TIM and Cerberus accomplished is WAY beyond their stated capabilities from the first or even second game. But a lot of the problems you’ve posed could actually be side-stepped in the MEverse, Shamus, by simply doing all of this stuff out in the Terminus Systems. It’d be the equivalent of building your warship in the middle of North Korea; it’s a lawless state that doesn’t give a f*ck what the wider community thinks of it, and the wider community couldn’t care less what happens in that country as long as they don’t cause trouble.

    So you’d need to set up facilities on an isolated planet (and remember that the galaxy is really, REALLY big), buy all your materials on the black market (or just from the Terminus Systems, which again, doesn’t give a f*ck who it’s selling to because they’re not bound by the Citadel conventions), buy your workers from batarian slavers (who use neural implants to control their slaves and stop them from escaping), and in the case of more complex parts or work that can’t be done by your indoctrinated slaves, simply pretend that you’re a legitimate customer or steathily infiltrate the factory and have them produce your goods without knowing that they’re actually going to you.

    Again, I doubt that Cerberus has the money or the manpower to build an entire personal army that’s capable of taking on established racial governments and winning, but I could see them building something like the Normandy SR-2 and having a few clandestine labs scattered here and there throughout the galaxy.

  52. AlexM says:

    What no one seems to have mentioned(or if they did, I missed it) was that ME1 estabishes that Cerberus was an Alliance special missions/research group akin to a dark STG that recently went rogue NOT too long before Shepard starts the Admiral Kahoku string of missions (Missing Marines, Hades Dogs, etc). And the protest on the Citadel during detainment in ME1 shoes there’s already a significant movement of humans first proponents – they’re already poised to donate time/people/money 3 years before ME3 starts. Who’s to say Cerberus didn’t just use Alliance resources to build up power before the split, establishing different secret bases throughout the Terminus Systems, or at least the framework to be able to launch that production in the future, and amp up the private funding later? It requires quite a bit of handwaving, but if you assume Cerberus had resources built up over several years beginning before ME1, then some of the issues pointed out seem less insurmountable.

    • Gethsemani says:

      It kind of works, but doesn’t cover the real problems. In the spirit of this blog post, let’s create a scenario where we substitute Cerberus for a real world organization:
      Imagine that a tenth of the CIA went rogue. One day they just say “no more” and go off to do their own thing, which is work for the good of America without the pesky constraints of federal accountability. They can probably take a lot of stuff with them when they leave, things like classified information, advanced hardware, weapons, cash, contacts and assets in the field etc. They might even be able to keep some off-the-grid safehouses and black sites that the rest of the CIA doesn’t know about. Some of their contacts can probably be used to get them stuff they don’t have access to in exchange for some of the cash, maybe they can even get a few corporate contacts to “misplace” some serious hardware like a few armored vehicles, artillery pieces etc..

      But then? Even if they have really good contacts and have taken a long time establishing shell corporations via which they own arms manufactures by proxy they won’t suddenly be able to pump out their own modified and superior Zumwalt-class (“the real life Normandy”) and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Why? Because that would require them to literally own a substantial part of the US arms industry and even IF they did that, they’d still have to build all their ships via whatever parts could “get lost” in creative accounting.

      But let’s pretend they manage to build a fleet of some 20 destroyers, one of which is the most advanced destroyer on earth. Then they’d also have to control several small arms and personal defense manufacturers since they are now outfitting an army to go with their destroyers and they are not content with just buying second rate gear off the black market or doing illegal modifications to civilian firearms (ie. converting an AR-15 to full auto fire). They also have to own the manufacturer of armored vehicles, since they have access to APCs and fighting vehicles (Atlas) AND have enough contacts in the construction sector that they could build a secret base on a remote island in secret without anyone ever finding out.

      At this point this isn’t a “rogue CIA cell” anymore. It is not even a general CIA uprising. The organization we are talking about has such ridiculous capabilities that it rivals small but well-off sovereign states (Sweden has some 15-20 combat vessel in its’ Navy) in capability. It doesn’t require hand waving, it requires everyone to not look at the dozen of elephants in the room and then collectively agree that the room is empty.

  53. Coming_Second says:

    I am so inured to bad guys having unaccountable amounts of infrastructure and manpower in video games that it barely figures to me anymore. Cerberus are a particularly henious example, but I think you overegged it a bit in this article. All you really needed to say was “there’s no way they could possibly have afforded it”, because the island example gets muddy when you factor in the vastness of space and new technology that might alleviate at least some of those concerns. You didn’t say anything about Saren being able to do similar; huge military base on Virmire, shell companies on Noveria… he’s got better excuses, but for fairness’s sake it should have been brought up.

    You also didn’t really engage what really bites me about Cerberus’s bottomless money and materiel hole. Cerberus are able to conjure into being this vast fleet that can challenge any other force in the galaxy in the space of a year; this is despite every single project they’ve ever run winding up on fire and everyone dead. Why can’t the Alliance do the same thing? Remember the hand-wringing after Shepard orders the human fleet to protect the Council ship, resulting in many of their battleships being destroyed? The fact the human military presence is significantly weakened by that is mentioned in both ME2 and ME3. And that’s as it should be. Building more warships takes money and time. The audience understands that.

    So the fact Cerberus, despite having far less infrastructure to do so and needing to remain secret, can magic into being this high tech army in basically no time at all, and the Alliance can’t, puts in concrete ME2’s trope of the Alliance being this completely inert and feeble entity and Cerberus being Massive Asspull: The Faction: The Game. You can’t engage with any of it.

  54. EBA says:

    Cerberus makes more sense if you think of them as a foreign nation and not a secret society in the alliance

  55. Deager says:

    What Eigil and then Burning said. ;)

    Thank you for this post and the next is sure to be fantastic. Lots of people keep focusing on the end and I keep posting a link to the first entry in this series and say, “read.” But this one post alone shows how insane the whole Cerberus thing is. I don’t mind them being crafty in ME3, but not full-out war with everyone. And I never liked them in ME2. Too bad we can’t retcon that out with a mod for ME2. :(

    EDIT: I’ve only glossed the comments but I see a few things people are missing. Shamus is correct on this. At best, on the human side of things, the Alliance in the United States or whatever you think is the most powerful country in the world, and Cerberus is, at best, Iceland…but they really can’t be as good as Iceland. And remember, humans are not the most powerful to begin with, we’re small potatoes, even if the council is killed in ME1. It’s just 3 people. Presidents in the US have been killed and yet, we’re (I’m in the US) still hanging in there just fine. Humanity is massively outnumbered and there’s no way Cerberus, on people power, can do what they’re doing.

    And don’t forget the massively long details list of things to build just one standard war machine. Just one. Like he said, this is why terrorists don’t have airplanes and massive weapons. They’d love them, but there’s pretty much no way it’s gonna happen unless they hijack them and in those cases, they are used for a sole purpose and are not strategically viable for a war.

    While I do agree that this is standard fair for video games…I think it’s time video games grow up a bit. There is potential to make this medium amazing. It takes in tons of money already so I suppose the industry is happy with how it works but dang, from ME1’s careful work (with some mis-steps surely; I could never do what they did though) to get to where we are in ME3; I think that’s why Shamus is pretty heavy on this stuff. It went from a pretty well crafted world or at least decent depending on how picky someone is, to going pretty far out there on the logical front.

    Sorry, long post. I just really liked Shamus’ post and I think it’s very accurate. This is what I think more games should think about when creating worlds.

  56. Xilizhra says:

    That’s an interesting thought experiment. I think a major component of Cerberus’ solution is mechanized labor: just as large numbers of human workers require vast amounts of infrastructure, robotic streamlining of the process will also cut off sizable chunks of it. You could have an entire factory where robots put everything together with VI coordination and minimal human supervision. And buying said robots wouldn’t be suspicious in and of itself, so the major problem would be the materials… which is definitely a problem, but not an unsolvable one.

    It’s also worth noting that, well, you don’t need magic for a space station to be invisible. Space is fucking huge, much bigger compared to civilized planets and facilities than the ocean is to the land, and no one can look everywhere at once.

    • Deager says:

      Those ideas are true, but…

      I think the point of this entry is to show how much has to be done to make even a simple thing work. And it’s all connected. There are many posts about “well, we can explain this by X,” and “X,” by itself, is true. But as a whole, it doesn’t work. Robots aren’t the ones fighting Shepard and everyone in ME3, it’s people. So, to even discuss that we go down a multi-page document about how that alone is a problem at many levels. And that’s just the people. Sure, they try to explain it with Sanctuary and stuff, but then you still have all the other resources they have. When looked at, as a whole, it really falls apart.

      But, like Shamus wrote, it’s about bridging the gap between reality and fiction. For some people, Cerberus works. For Shamus, it doesn’t. For me, it doesn’t. But if it works for you, it’s valid for you since, we’re talking fiction here. :)

      • Xilizhra says:

        Well, the thought experiment was about building the Normandy. Cerberus’ resources in ME3 are a different matter.

      • Mike S. says:

        But, like Shamus wrote, it’s about bridging the gap between reality and fiction. For some people, Cerberus works. For Shamus, it doesn’t. For me, it doesn’t. But if it works for you, it’s valid for you since, we’re talking fiction here. :)

        There’s also “Wow, that part makes no sense, and can’t be made to. Oh well.” (Returns to enjoying rest of story.) The breaking point of WSOD is very personal and variable.

        • Deager says:

          For sure. I mean, I still keep playing the trilogy. And at least it’s better than say, Call of Duty: Anything. Except maybe the original CoD. My buddy and I played Black Ops co-op tonight. Hilarious together but I’d hate it alone.

          So at least Mass Effect, with all flaws, is still not too shabby. :D

  57. Ninety-Three says:

    Everyone has been proposing “But what if Cerberus just used mechanized factories to produce their warships?”, but that doesn’t solve the problem. Unless Cerberus has some kind of Reaper Tech super-factory, their automation technology can’t be far ahead of the rest of the galaxy. And the rest of the galaxy has had factories running for thousands of years. There’s no way Cerberus could build up a god-mode fleet to match the major races in, what’s our time frame? Two years from ME1 to ME3? Months from ME2 to 3?

    • Xilizhra says:

      I’m pretty sure it didn’t. I believe that most of Cerberus’ forces are the ones that Shepard fights, with them only showing up very occasionally in the rest of the war as compared to the Reapers.

      Of course, a great deal of their stuff was built in the Terminus Systems, beyond the reach of the Citadel government, and private armies and warships are definitely known quantities there.

      • ehlijen says:

        This is not supported by the game, though.

        –Took over the Mars facility before the reapers show up there.
        -Somehow launches a surprise attack on the Salarian homeworld (the superspy world).
        This either requires a major force, or that the world is more or less undefended (which in turn wouldn’t mesh with the ‘everyone’s protecting themselves instead of working together’ plot shepard is supposedly trying to solve).
        -Takes over Grissom academy, which I’d have expected the alliance to defend rather well
        -Takes over Omega and fights off a mercenary fleet trying to retake it
        -Seizes and holds assets on the Krogan homeworld (the superbarbarian world), including digging up a building sized structure.
        -Launches a coup on the citadel, overcoming the entirety of C-sec.
        -Is shown sending entire companies to take numerous objectives in the side missions.
        -Has a fleet that threatens to give Hackett a run for his money

        All of cerberus’ operations imply more going on than shepard personally encounters; the player doesn’t personally wipe out each mission force. But just going by the numbers the player does kill, Cerberus is an army. As in, a legitimate army with the numbers to absorb significant casualties and keep fighting. That requires a nation level support infrastructure.

        On top of that, the game tries to sell the player heavily on the idea that they’re just the crucial part of this war that it’s going on all around them in the meantime. If everyone everywhere is always fighting, and Cerberus is a frequently encountered enemy (who we’re told attacks random targets everywhere, too, as per the side missions), then the obvious assumption is that cerberus is part of this big war. If it wasn’t supposed to be, then the game needs to tell the players that. It never does.

        But if cerberus somehow truly wasn’t a huge force and what shepard sees is truly all they do, then how come Shepard is the one who always runs into them or gets called to deal with their latest attacks?
        Some of it can be explained by both shepard and Tim searching or the catalyst/crucible info. (Mars, Thessia)
        But why would Hackett always send Shepard after every cerberus sighting? Isn’t Shepard supposed to be under suspicion of being in league with them, at least to start with? Isn’t Shepard busy forging a galactic alliance?
        And why is it always just Shepard to stumble into cerberus plots where they’re trying not be disturbed and which have little to do with the crucible plot? (Grissom, Citadel, Tuchanka bomb?)

        In short, Cerberus is either an inexplicably huge military powerhouse or the game counter-thematically contrives to have shepard run into everything cerberus does. I don’t think either explanation works well.

        • guy says:

          Also, the multiplayer missions are canonically happening and include Cerberus as one of the three enemy types at launch.

          • Shoeboxjeddy says:

            The IDEA of the multiplayer matches are happening. Each instance of multiplayer though, not so much. Otherwise several hundred million Cerberus men were killed in Firebase White in the first month of the war.

  58. guy says:

    I don’t generally buy the argument that Cerberus could establish automated offworld factories. The problem with their fleet isn’t its absolute size but its relative size. Sci-fi supertech can support arbitrary production rates, but that cuts both ways. There’s simply no technology that can let them out-produce Sol’s shipyards, because the Alliance has the exact same technology. They’ve already got the entire production chain set up and establishing a full dirt-to-starship chain cannot possibly compete with using an existing one. But given Cerberus’s apparent combat power, if they started building their fleet at the start of ME1, they’ve actually outproduced the Alliance during that period. Heck, just their base defense being on somewhat equal terms requires maybe double the Alliance’s fleet production just for that one battle. They’ve fighting Fifth Fleet, comprising twenty percent of the Alliance’s pre-war navy and still largely intact, and by the codex capital ship counts the Alliance fleet grows by ten percent between ME1 and ME3.

  59. Submariner says:

    At the end of Mass Effect 2 after EDI has been unshackled, you can ask her about Cerberus. She states that Cerberus is made of of approximately 150 operatives. So in the (six? eight?) few months between the suicide mission and the reaper invasion, Cerberus went from 150 operatives to a full standing Navy and Marine force. And no, you don’t get to tell me that Sanctuary supplied all those troops because it didn’t really get going in terms of processing until *after* the Reaper invasion.

    Mass Effect 3 writer was just a hack or had instructions from EA Big Brother to just crank something out.

  60. TheDjinni says:

    With respect to Cerberus’ seemingly limitless supply of money and mooks…

    There’s a mission with Miranda later where it’s revealed that Cerberus is luring fleeing refugees in with promises of safety. They then brainwash and control them with the husk tech. They’re also charging them money to do it and confiscating all the stuff they bring, which may be helping them bankroll some of their operations.

    While it would have been nice for this to have been properly foreshadowed and lampshaded (a simple “how are they doing this?” followed later by “oh, that’s how they were doing it!” would have been the bare minimum due diligence) it’s not quite a plot hole.

    As far as Cerberus’ ability to manufacture complex military assets without being detected…

    We’ve already established in ME2 that the various merc groups have access to quite advanced military hardware. We can reasonably chalk that up to two things: 1. doing a lot of the higher profile stuff in the Terminus systems, where you don’t really have to be all that secret about things, and 2. having black, grey, & even on-the-level market connections to help you get the miscellaneous parts and supplies you need without needing to recreate the entire production line. The Terminus systems are a big place, and as we see from Zaeed’s loyalty mission, there are entire planets with fully-functioning global markets & a population of billions under the control of specific mercenary groups.

    Sure, you might need very special steel to make a battleship to the specifications of the U.S. Navy. But change those specifications to a steel you can import by the shipload without raising eyebrows, or do it yourself in the middle of the Terminus systems, and the problem is solved. Especially since we’ve already established that the council is too wary of starting a civil war in the Terminus systems in normal circumstances to roll out with a large scale military operation to shut it down – and this is only compounded by the Reaper invasion, which obviously left them too stretched to actually mount an attack even if they wanted to.

  61. Roger says:

    Here’s something funny in hindsight: this post was published on March 24, 2016. Not even 2 weeks later, April 3, the first batch of Panama Papers was published, disclosing how wealthy people are able to hide billions and billions of money. And the big companies like Google and Apple are constantly being investigated for potential tax evasion. I’m pretty sure if somebody like that wanted to fund a ter*****t organization, they could.

    Also, even now, if you have the money, you can buy a Harrier or something, and at least some older ship, and getting some missiles for it would probably not be much of an issue either. Russia is surely willing to sell anything.

    Even a whole army isn’t that far fetched. When Germany was building their army and navy before WWII, they were under surveillance by the allies and they still got away with it. IIRC Pakistan also pretty much built their nuclear capability based on stolen blueprints and smuggled technology and they did it all in secret. We’re talking about thousands to hundreds of thousands of people being involved in these industries and yet both cases were relatively ‘secret’.

    And that’s just one planet. We’re talking the vastness of space here. Now, Cerberus doesn’t fit the profile, but I can imagine that if someone was truly hell-bent on building such an organization and was capable to gather enough resources… It’s not that far-fetched, relatively speaking.

    I’m not defending it here… Cerberus was stupid from the very inception. But a smart writer could very easily explain all this without smashing the suspension of disbelief.

    • PPX14 says:

      This seems even more plausible in a galaxy where you can hide in some “outer rim” new colony world which has access to the galactic supply chain but is many steps removed from the central bodies.

  62. PPX14 says:

    You mention mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and even marine engineers… and then have Chemists designing chemical plants? Sacrilege! :P

    Look, clearly just as the husks can be of different species, they can also be of different professions. And AI androids can perform all other tasks requiring a less flimsy frame. And it is by Cerberus’ possession of Reaper Tech™ that they can create this AI – Husk utopian society.

  63. George Monet says:

    I love how this article explains why most 4x strategy games wouldn’t work. You can’t make a planet that just produces money, you can’t make a planet that just produces science, you can’t make a planet that just produces industry. Each planet needs infrastructure. How does a planet produce a ridiculous amount of money while other planets produce no money? Where does the money come from? How does an entire planet produce science? Isn’t there a diminishing return as there are only a finite number of people smart enough to think of the most cutting edge science? There is no country in the world that just produces science. There is no country that just produces money or just produces goods. All countries have a mix. Sure some countries seem to produce more of one than the other, but all countries produce all types.

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