The Mass Effect and Its Consequences
The Mass Effect
The mass effect is a physical phenomenon exhibited by a substance known as “element zero”, or “eezo” for short. When an electrical current is passed through a piece of element zero, it emits dark energy. This dark energy can be manipulated to create a mass effect field, which will temporarily increase or decrease the mass of any objects within the field, depending on the direction of the electrical current.
The mass effect can reduce the mass of an object to zero or less, permitting faster-than-light (FTL) travel.
Element Zero (“eezo”)
Element Zero, or “eezo”, is formed when solid matter, such as a planet, is exposed to the energy of a star going supernova. It naturally decays on a scale of thousands of years, explaining why none is naturally occurring on the 4.5-billion-year-old Earth. Primary source mining is very dangerous and involves approaching a neutron star (or other supernova remnant) to collect the newly-formed eezo, typically from an asteroid field. Secondary source mining is much safer, and involves approaching a newly form(ed/ing) planet to obtain the eezo left over from the parent supernova.
Mass Accelerator Weapons
Nearly all weapons in the Mass Effect universe, from pistols up to dreadnought cannons, are mass accelerator weapons. The basic principle is: take a physical object, reduce its mass with a mass effect field, accelerate it to high speed, then remove the mass effect field. This violates the conservation laws of energy and momentum: the object retains its speed but suddenly gains mass, thus increasing both momentum and kinetic energy.
Most mass accelerator weapons use railguns to accelerate their payloads. Railguns exist in the real world, and work on the Fleming left-hand rule by combining electricity on the X axis with magnetism on the Y axis to produce motion on the Z axis.
See Places > The Citadel.
A mass relay is an enormous, self-operating, self-maintaining FTL transportation device consisting of two 15km-long metal arms wrapped around a pair of 5km-diameter rings that rapidly rotate. (Perhaps the rings form a magnetic bottle?)
Relays link up in pairs, forming corridors of massless space that allow ships to cross hundreds or even thousands of light years in seconds, far faster than conventional FTL. Ships use the relay by signaling the relay's automated systems, informing it of the transit mass and of the destination relay, then riding along the arms until the ship is shot off at high speed.
Received wisdom has it that the mass relay network was built by the Protheans. However, the mass relays were actually built by the Reapers as a means of speeding technological development between cycles. Unbeknownst to most, the Citadel is actually the central point of control for the entire mass relay network: when the Reapers capture the Citadel during their cycles, they use it to disable the mass relays for everyone but them, and to track all attempts to use the mass relays during the invasion.
The Shroud is a terraforming system which was installed on Tuchanka by the salarians to rehabilitate the planet after its devastation by nuclear war. The Shroud itself consists of a number of solar shades placed in space at the Tuchanka-Aralakh L1 Lagrange point; these shades reduce the amount of Aralakh’s light reaching the surface of Tuchanka. The shades were launched from Tuchanka’s surface via a series of mass accelerator towers, known as Shroud Facilities. In modern times, only one of the Shroud Facilities remains.
At some point, the remaining Shroud Facility was reconfigured to disperse particles into Tuchanka’s atmosphere. (A guess: the facility releases ionized particles into the air in order to clump dust particles and settle them to the ground. This may have been set up to avert nuclear winter, or it may have been an attempt to deal with the dust bowls left behind when much of Tuchanka’s vegetation died out.)
After the Krogan Rebellions, the last Shroud Facility was used to deploy the genophage against the krogan.
Fighters are 15m-long short range, one-person ships that attack en masse. They target the kinetic barriers of larger ships with disruptor torpedoes, trying to expose the enemy to the full firepower of larger ships.
Frigates are 200m-long escort and scouting vessels that travel in "wolf packs" of 4 to 6 ships. They perform reconnaissance and provide screening for cruisers.
Cruisers are 700m-long middleweight combatants, often found at the head of a fleet. They are the workhorse of a combat fleet, punching hard enough to matter but small enough to react quickly.
Dreadnoughts are 1000m-long heavyweight ships, found near the rear of a fleet. Their weapons are very powerful (38 kT TNT per shot), but they are very vulnerable due to their size. The number of dreadnoughts per species is limited by the Treaty of Farixen.
Carriers are 1000m-long heavyweight ships, found near the rear of a fleet. They lack the substantial firepower of a deadnought, substituting it with an enormous complement of fighters. Carriers are an innovation unique to the Systems Alliance human military, and are not subject to the Treaty of Farixen.
FTL Drive Core
Eezo can be used to create an FTL drive core. A drive core allows the creation of a mass effect field large enough to envelop an entire spaceship. This has a number of beneficial effects:
- The mass of the ship can be lowered to zero or less, allowing travel at the speed of light and beyond
- The mass of the ship can be reduced, allowing it to move more efficiently
- The mass of the ship can be changed quickly, compensating for sudden accelerations (i.e. prevent the crew from getting turned into jelly)
- The mass of the ship can be preferentially increased in one direction, generating artificial gravity
Drive core technology allows a 2180's-era spaceship to travel at a speed of 12 light years per day (4,400c).
Drive cores are always used in conjunction with an FTL plotter, a device which plots a course that safely avoids nearby objects. As the FTL plotter can only observe objects using speed-of-light sensors, it is not perfect. However, it is enough to prevent an ordinary spaceship from being used as a weapon of mass destruction. (All drive core and FTL plotter technology in the current cycle came from the Protheans. It is implied that both technologies originated with the Reapers, and that the Reapers added the FTL plotters to prevent ships from being used as weapons against them.)
A kinetic barrier uses mass effect fields to reduce the mass of incoming projectiles, allowing spaceships to protect themselves from mass accelerator weapons.
For reasons poorly explained in canon, kinetic barriers can also act as force fields: they can be used to retain atmosphere while the cargo bay doors are open, allowing shuttles to pass through unimpeded, or they can be configured to block all solid objects of a certain speed or slower from passing through. Presumably this works by projecting directional mass effect fields, similarly to how artificial gravity works.
GARDIAN (General ARea Defense Integration Anti-spacecraft Network) is an automated network of lasers installed on larger spaceships for combat at "knife fight" range. These lasers are particularly important for defense against enemy fighters and their disruptor torpedoes. GARDIAN range is limited by beam diffraction, making them ineffective for long-range combat.
Disruptor torpedoes are weapons designed for breaching a kinetic barrier. They operate by rapidly shifting between mass-increasing and mass-decreasing mass effect fields, warping space-time and causing the target to rip itself apart. Disruptor torpedoes increase their mass during travel to pierce the target kinetic barrier, making them highly vulnerable to GARDIAN fire; thus, they must be launched at short range and in large numbers.
Mass Accelerator Cannons
Traditional mass accelerator cannons vary in size, depending on the class of ship, but are all based on the railgun principle. Dreadnought cannons use 20kg ferrous slugs (iron cannonballs) as projectiles, accelerated to 1.3% of the speed of light. There isn't much point in using something fancier, like a warhead: a 20kg projectile traveling at 0.013c already impacts with the force of a 38 kT nuclear device.
Newer canons, such as the Thanix cannon, operate on magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) principles. The "projectile" is a fluid, specifically an electrically conductive molten metal, that is accelerated by applying an electrical current to it as it passes through a magnetic field. This has the advantage of delivering a significant payload of heat in addition to the bulk kinetic energy.
The Extranet is a vast communications network linking the galaxy’s computers. It functions via the FTL comm buoys.
A comm buoy is a device which provides FTL communications. They operate in a mesh network, densely blanketing the populated star systems to provide real-time communication across the galaxy. They operate similarly to the mass relays in miniature: they maintain a corridor of mass-free space to other comm buoys, then “tightbeam” a laser carrier through the massless corridor.
Comm buoys have a large but finite communications capacity; Council and Spectre business has highest priority, followed by the governments and militaries of Council species, and lastly followed by civilian uses. It is hinted that civilian bandwidth is split into priority bands to which access is auctioned or otherwise priced in real-time.
Quantum Entanglement Communicators (QEC)
A QEC is a device which offers instantaneous communication between itself and its paired unit, by way of quantum entanglement. Because this pairing consists of a single entangled particle, which can transmit only a single binary digit at once, QECs have very limited bandwidth.
QECs are a very new technology in the Mass Effect games, making them rare and expensive. However, QEC communication cannot be intercepted, traced, or blocked, giving them a serious advantage for military applications. In addition, QECs operate independently of the comm buoy network and can function at any distance, making them resilient in situations where the comm buoys cannot be relied upon.
(Real Life Note: The “No-Cloning Theorem” guarantees that quantum entanglement cannot be used to transmit information.)
Biotechnology & Cybernetics
The genophage is a krogan-specific virus which was engineered by salarian scientists and deployed by the turians in 710 CE, during the Krogan Rebellions. This virus altered the genome of every krogan, reducing the number of viable offspring to one in one thousand by tampering with maternal hormone levels.
At some point in the decades before ME2, a salarian team was assigned to monitor the status of the genophage. It was discovered that the krogan were evolving to adapt to it, and the team was repurposed to develop a modified strain of the genophage and deploy it against the krogan, to counteract the adaptation. That team was successful.
In ME2, Mordin Solus claims that this ratio (1 in 1,000) was carefully chosen as the ideal for reaching zero population growth. However, Urdnot Wrex implies that this rate is not sufficient to maintain the krogan population on Tuchanka. They may both be right, as the genophage may have led to cultural changes that result in fewer reproductive attempts than what the genophage scientists had planned for.
Medi-gel is an all-purpose topical gel for injuries, especially open wounds. It combines an anaesthetic and clotting factors in a gel matrix which grips the skin, pulls the wound closed, and hardens immediately after application. Its creation is technically a violation of Council laws regulating genetic engineering, but medi-gel is so useful that this violation is routinely overlooked.
a.k.a. "space magic"
Biotics is the ability of an individual to manipulate mass effect fields.
Dust-form eezo is often released in spacecraft accidents involving the ship's drive core. It can be incorporated into biological systems, particularly in utero, forming nodules in the nervous system's ganglia that permit the use of biotics. However, eezo exposure is also known to lead to invasive cancer, and it's a crapshoot whether you get cancer, biotics, both, or nothing.
These eezo nodules allow that individual to create and manipulate mass effect fields with a thought. This allows people to:
- Reduce their own mass, to float down gently from high places
- Reduce an object's mass, to hurl it toward an enemy
- Reduce an enemy's mass, to lift them into the air helplessly or hurl them at a wall
- Increase an enemy's mass, to immobilize them on the ground
- Rapidly alternate between raising and lowering an enemy's mass, ripping their body apart at a molecular level
The eezo nodules by themselves are usually not enough; most species make use of biotic amplification. This is a technology which translates nerve impulses into larger electrical currents suitable for activating eezo more effectively. It consists of two pieces: the "biotic implant", a network of wires surgically implanted in the skull, with an externally accessible port poking through the skin near the base of the skull; and the "bio-amp", a modular and swappable computer which sits inside the user's implant port and coordinates the firing of the electrical impulses through the implant.
The wiring configuration for biotic implants is specific to each species. Humans are still fairly new to biotics, so human implants have... well, let's say they've come a long way.
- The L1 implant was not very effective. Users could move small objects with their mind. Few combat applications.
- The L2 implant had highly variable outcomes in terms of power level: an L2 might be massively powerful, massively powerful but unstable, or as weak as an L1. The L2 recipients got a smattering of ugly side effects to boot, ranging from migraines to crippling physical pain to insanity.
- Reparations for those fitted with the L2 implant have been a bitter point of contention for years.
- The L3 implant has been the standard since 2170. Although not as powerful as the L2, it is much more consistent and has far fewer side effects.
- The L4 implant is still somewhat experimental, having been used in the Alliance Ascension Project and nowhere else. Results are positive.
- The L5x and L5n implants are very experimental technology. Early results are good.
Most biotics became that way when they were exposed to dust-form eezo while in the womb, then were fitted with biotic implants before puberty. A small number of biotics gained their abilities later in life: for example, Commander Shepard was a so-called "secondary exposure", having been exposed to eezo at age 14 and fitted with an L3 implant at age 17.
A graybox is a cybernetic implant that interfaces with the brain, capable of recording and playing back memories with high fidelity. When grayboxes were invented by Synthetic Insights in 2160, they were originally intended for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. However, grayboxes quickly found use among professionals who could benefit from artificial eidetic memories, such as spies. This eventually led to the outlawing of medically unnecessary grayboxes in 2175, when an employee of the Alliance Intelligence Agency used a graybox to copy and sell classified data.
The omnitool is a ubiquitous piece of equipment in the modern era. It combines a computer microframe with holographic interface, a sensor pack, Extranet access, and a minifacturing fabricator. The omnitool itself is fastened to the palm of the non-dominant hand; when activated, it projects the familiar orange holographic interface for ease of use. In 21st century terms, it is like a smartphone, a VR headset, and a 3D printer rolled into one.
The fabricator is perhaps the most fascinating function: it is able to rapidly "print" needed equipment by arranging reusable omni-gel "ink" into patterns specified by licensed schematics and rapidly solidifying it. It can even flash-print single-use monomolecular blades, weapons so thin and sharp that they are invisible to the naked eye; in this case, the omnitool helpfully projects an orange hologram to indicate where the blade is.
To make long-term use of the holographic interface feel more acceptable, the omnitool incorporates haptic feedback. Special gloves provide force-feedback to the user, allow them to “feel” the holographic buttons being pressed on the omnitool interface. Frequent omnitool users may opt for surgical implants in the fingertips to obviate the need for gloves.
Personal firearms, such as pistols and assault rifles, work by shaving off a sliver of metal from a large block, then accelerating that sliver to very high speeds using a mass effect field and a railgun. This is essentially a miniature version of a spaceship's mass effect cannon.
Personal shields operate on the same principles as a spaceship's kinetic barriers, slowing down or deflecting incoming projectiles to protect the wearer.
AIs and VIs
Virtual Intelligence (VI)
A Virtual Intelligence is a piece of software which, while not exhibiting self-awareness, can nonetheless handle a subset of what in the real world is considered the domain of “artificial intelligence”. VIs are often used for organizing documents, sorting and automatically replying to messages, collating data to extract patterns, and flagging important data for review by its operator. VIs are heavily used by all species in both civilian and military life.
VI software is capable of “going rogue”, but this indicates programmer error, not self-awareness. (Or so the story goes...)
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
An Artificial Intelligence is a piece of software which exhibits self-awareness — a sapient mind of artificial construction.
AIs are highly regulated in Citadel Space: a small number of corporations hold licenses to experiment with AI in carefully controlled laboratory conditions; but outside of such laboratories, AI technology is highly illegal. This legal status is mostly due to the historical fact that most AIs created have been quite hostile to organic life. (It's implied that perhaps this is because most AIs are “shackled”: they are prohibited from certain actions by programming, but are nonetheless capable of wanting to perform those actions, a situation that the AIs find frustrating at best.)
In theory, there is a sharp line between AI (scary, illegal) and VI (safe, ubiquitous). The distinguishing factor is the presence or absence of a quantum bluebox, a piece of quantum computing hardware which cannot be copied without destroying the data within. VIs lack a bluebox, and are thus not capable of quantum computing. However, to give software the self-awareness of a true AI, one must provide a bluebox. (Or so the story goes...)
However, there are indications that the line is blurrier than it seems: ME1 features a military VI that goes rogue, and that VI sends out a coded message begging for help as Commander Shepard deactivates it. ME3 later tells us that EDI (a true AI with a bluebox) was created from the scraps of that VI, and that she first gained self-awareness in that moment when she asked for help. Additionally, the quarians created the geth from VI technology: geth programs lack a bluebox, and can thus transfer between geth platforms and/or duplicate themselves. Yet, the geth are clearly self-aware.
Together, this implies that VI and AI are more alike than people would prefer to believe.
See also: Species > Protheans.
A Prothean beacon is a communications device capable of transmitting images directly into the mind of the user. The beacons were once part of a galaxy-spanning network, allowing rapid dissemination of data. They also hold caches of data — presumably recordings of the most recent transmissions.
ME3 reveals that the beacons were modeled after a biological ability possessed by the Protheans themselves: specifically, the Prothean capacity to read a subject’s experiences by touch.
The Cipher is the name given by Shiala to the ancestral memories of the Protheans, as remembered by the Thorian. The Cipher is needed by both Saren and Shepard to understand the warning contained in the Prothean beacons, a critical step in locating the Conduit.
The Conduit is a miniature mass relay, created in the final days of the Prothean empire. It connects to the Relay Monument on the Citadel, near the base of the Citadel Tower. It is effectively a backdoor to the Citadel.
The Crucible is a hypothetical superweapon capable of destroying the Reapers. The Protheans attempted to build it in the final days of their empire, but were unable to complete it in time. The design is not truly Prothean; the blueprints have been handed down from Cycle to Cycle over countless eons, and the Protheans were merely the last to improve the design.
In ME3, Shepard’s galactic fleet succeeds in building the Crucible. However, it requires the “Catalyst” to function. Shepard learns that the Protheans believed that the Citadel was the Catalyst; however, the Catalyst was actually an AI built into the Citadel, and specifically was the AI which controls the Reapers.
See also: Species > Reapers.
Indoctrination is a technological process by which a Reaper manipulates the mind of an organic life form.
In its early stages, indoctrination leaves the victim’s mind mostly intact but sways it to find the Reapers’ arguments more persuasive: the victims gradually begin to carry out the Reapers’ will, all the while believing that their actions remain freely chosen. A victim may believe that they are acting independently of the Reapers, or even that they are opposing them, yet will construct plans that ultimately play into those of the Reapers. They may even consciously ally with the Reapers, believing that the Reapers’ plans are not at inherent cross-purposes to their own. Saren, Benezia, and the Illusive Man were prime examples of early-stage indoctrination victims.
Mid-stage indoctrination is similar to early-stage indoctrination, but may include hallucinations, visions, paranoia, and memories inexplicably shared with fellow victims. (It is possible that some or all of these symptoms are more a function of the intensity of the indoctrination signal, and not of indoctrination’s mid-stages.) In this stage, the victim is somewhat less capable than in the early stages, but is even more susceptible to the Reapers and their persuasion. Dr. Amanda Kenson [ME2: Arrival DLC] was a prime example of a mid-stage indoctrination victim.
Late-stage indoctrination is marked by total obedience to the Reapers, without a pretense of free will. However, this comes at a severe decline in the victim’s ability to plan and operate independently, making the victim useless to the Reapers except as muscle. Late-stage victims typically operate as mindless “machine cultists”, defending the Reapers and their artifacts to the death.
The fictional technology of indoctrination is deliberately unexplained in the games. Infrasound is involved, particularly in the early stages of indoctrination. (In real life, infrasound is known to provoke feelings of awe or fear in humans, feelings that perhaps invite us to invoke supernatural explanations. Infrasound may be one explanation for “hauntings” and other ghost sightings, and may be a cause of religious awe provoked by cathedral pipe organs.) We can infer that the late stages probably involve some exposure to nanotechnology, which presumably creates Reaper-to-victim or victim-to-victim links via radio or other signals.
A Reaper artifact is any piece of technology deliberately left behind by the Reapers. Each artifact is unique, suggesting that the Reapers are experimenting with different techniques, but most are capable of indoctrinating nearby victims.
Some Reaper artifacts encountered in Mass Effect canon include:
- The monolith uncovered by Desolas Arterius, Saren’s brother, on Shanxi during the turian occupation [Mass Effect: Evolution comic]. This monolith turned the turians who touched it into “meta-turians” (cybernetically modified turian pseudo-husks).
- The twin monolith dug up on Palaven [Mass Effect: Evolution comic].
- Various objects encountered on uncharted worlds in ME1 and ME2, typically exposed by underground mining. These objects transformed their victims into “machine cultists” (represented in-game as human husks).
- Object Rho, a device found in an asteroid field in the Bahak system [ME2: Arrival DLC]. It indoctrinated Dr. Amanda Kenson and her team.
Proteins are a key building block of carbon-based life. Proteins are complex chemicals made by chaining together amino acids, a family of much simpler chemicals. The order in which the amino acids are laid down determines the properties of the protein. In humans, there are 22 amino acids used to build proteins; nine of the 22 cannot be made in the human body, and these must be obtained through food.
Each amino acid possesses a carbon atom with four distinct ligands (attached sub-chemicals): an amine (-NH2) group, a carboxylic acid (-COOH) group, a hydrogen (-H), and a variable side chain. The variable side chain determines the properties of the amino acid.
Chemicals containing a carbon atom with four distinct ligands are called chiral. These four ligands are arranged into a tetrahedron (triangular pyramid) around the chiral carbon atom. The ligands can freely rotate, but they cannot trade places, slide past each other, etc. There are therefore two distinct ways to arrange the four ligands: the first ligand can attach to any of the four points on the pyramid, which are all equal by rotation; the second ligand picks any of the remaining three, also equal by rotation; the third ligand must choose between the “left” point vs the “right” point, which are not equal; and finally the fourth ligand must choose the only remaining empty point. We (pretty arbitrarily) name one of the arrangements “left-handed”, “levorotary”, “levo”, or “sinistral”, and we name the other arrangement “right-handed”, "dextrorotary”, “dextro”, or “dextral”.
Biology picks one of the two arrangements for all the amino acids in its proteins. Why? Because proteins interact with other chiral chemicals (especially other proteins), and the way two chiral chemicals interact depends on which chiralities are interacting. A protein P, which is supposed to do something to protein Q, might only work if P and Q are both the same chirality. If we made levo-P, dextro-P, levo-Q, and dextro-Q in equal proportions, then half the levo-P would be wasted trying to work with dextro-Q, and likewise half the dextro-P would be wasted trying to work with levo-Q. Thus, we get twice as much bang for our buck if we pick one amino acid arrangement and stick with it for all proteins. It doesn’t really matter which one we pick, levo or dextro, so long as we are consistent.
In the Mass Effect universe, most life has settled on left-handed amino acids, but a few species settled on right-handed amino acids instead. Levo-amino life cannot obtain any nutrition from dextro-amino life, and vice versa. What’s more, any attempt to consume protein of the wrong chirality will generally provoke a fatal allergic reaction.
(Real Life Note: we probably could digest dextro-amino proteins, and our bodies can definitely convert the digested amino acids from dextro to levo. Allergic reactions to alien proteins would be likely, but that has nothing to do with their chirality.)