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.
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:
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:
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.
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, 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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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 Techâ„¢.
We’ll talk about that next time when we return to Mass Effect 3.
 Or lady. Drooling cross-eyed dunces of any gender are welcome.
 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.
 By the way: You also need to hire guys to carry rifles and dig ditches.
 I know you’re evil, but hopefully not stupid. Try to dump it away from the populated areas.
 Actually, we’re long past that point. Melting steel requires RIDICULOUS amounts of power.
 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.
 Or in a fictional world that’s trying to hold together through the power of verisimilitude.
Crysis 2 has basically the same plot as Half-Life 2. So why is one a classic and the other simply obnoxious and tiresome?
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