We knew that BioWare is working on a new installment of the Mass Effect franchise for quite some time now, but only during the last E3 it was revealed that the game will be titled Andromeda. Many fundamental questions remain to be answered, including the most important ones: what are humans doing in the Andromeda galaxy and, finally, which ending to the trilogy ends up as the canonical one. Although we can’t expect BioWare to respond to those any time soon, the fan community points at an interesting and quite plausible possibility. The civilizations of the galaxy call it… the Ark Theory.
Warning: This text includes significant Mass Effect trilogy spoilers!
There are three things we know for sure about the plot of Mass Effect: Andromeda: it will take place in the Andromeda galaxy, it will take place many years after the conclusion of the initial trilogy and, finally, it won’t feature Commander Shepard. That’s not much, to be honest. For starters, we do not know what order of magnitude does the abovementioned “many” mean in a galaxy where members of the longest living species can grow up to be a thousand years old. Another mystery is how the civilizations from Milky Way managed to even reach Andromeda. The Andromeda galaxy is located more or less 2,5 million light years (roughly 25 trillion kilometers) from Earth which is an astronomical distance even by Mass Effect’s standards and when taking into account the technology available in the setting. The Andromeda galaxy may be currently closing in to Milky Way at 110km/s and will collide with it in around 3,75 billion years, but this doesn’t really improve the situation.
The fastest known FTL drives, available only to the Reapers, can achieve a maximum velocity of 30 light years per 24 hours (that’s roughly twice the speed of any ship available to the Citadel Council races), which would allow them to reach the Andromeda galaxy in circa 230 years. Even then you have to remember about the limitations of the existing technology – they need to discharge the FTL drive during long distance travel. The general assumption is that a standard eezo core reaches charge saturation (when a drive discharge becomes a necessity) after 50 hours of operation, which means roughly every 2 days. Due to the principles of the drives’ operation, this time span will become proportionally shorter for ships heavier or faster than average. Drive discharge can only be carried out under certain conditions and may take less than an hour (when conducted in a powerful magnetic field of a gas giant), but up to several days (if conducted in a magnetic field of a small moon). We cannot deny the possibility that the Reapers somehow managed to overcome this limitation while in dark space since after Sovereign’s destruction they used FTL to travel the distance separating them from the batarian space. According to Mac Walters, the main writer of Mass Effect 3, their journey began right after the events of the initial Mass Effect and took them about 2 years to reach their destination. If so, the distance they covered equals to roughly 22 thousand light years. That’s a lot, but still over a hundred times less than the distance separating two galaxies.
Taking into account all of the above, a journey to the Andromeda galaxy by conventional methods is not necessarily an impossible, but a more or less pointless option. In search of an alternative we return to the mass relay technology which allows ships to move across hundreds, thousands or possibly even dozens of thousands of light years. During the events of Mass Effect trilogy we’ve seen some unusual relays, including the Omega-4 relay which allowed for a safe journey to the center of the galaxy, barely inches (on the galactic scale) away from a supermassive black hole. If building a relay capable of such precision is possible, why building a super-relay offering ultra long range travel wouldn’t? This somewhat rhetorical question will mark the beginning of our analysis of the Ark Theory.
Dreaming of Andromeda
Reddit user NeroJoe is one of the prominent co-authors of the Ark Theory. He created a speculative timeline that follows the main Mass Effect chronology but, at the same time, includes facts about an enigmatic mass relay (or a similar device), known as the Ark, which leads to the Andromeda galaxy. One of the theory’s strong points is that it allows for a completely new story without the necessity to canonize any of the Mass Effect 3’s endings. That solution would be perfectly matched with the declaration Aaron Flynn, the chief of BioWare Edmonton and Montreal divisions, made, concerning the developer team’s idea for a continuation that would be connected to the previous installments while being an independent story at the same time. But let’s start from the beginning.
The beginnings of the Ark Theory reach back to the 2014 E3 presentation of the fourth installment of Mass Effect; the title Andromeda had yet to be revealed at the time. The first version of the theory was based on the assumption that some refugees from the council races fled from the Milky Way to the Andromeda galaxy on a colossal spaceship called the Ark. The idea originated from the notion that the galaxy map visible on the trailer looked differently than the one we’ve seen before. The fan community, however, remained mostly skeptical, and for good reasons, (compare with the “Galactic exile” section) leading the early Ark Theory to a death in obscurity, in contrast with the highly popular Indoctrination Theory which originated around the same point in time.
When this year’s E3 brought us the official announcement of Mass Effect: Andromeda, the Ark Theory returned from the dead. The announcement proved some of the previously leaked information and rumors to be highly possible if not outright true. The next thing came soon after via BioWare workers’ Twitter accounts – photos showing T-shirts with a mysterious “ARKCON Pathfinder Initiative” logo (ARKCON may be an acronym but we don’t know that for sure yet). This would correspond to the information included in an alleged survey BioWare circulated to a certain number of people. If that’s not enough for you, take note that the same logo appears in the background of the official website.
One of the key factors that forced major changes in the Ark Theory is the concept art visible above, published to commemorate the N7 Day in November 2014. According to the new, modified theory what we see in that picture is not a space station but a gigantic mass relay of unknown origin. When you look at its architecture, it certainly seems possible (notice the shining energy field) and it does bear some resemblance to the abovementioned ARKCON logo. Of course, there’s always an option that the Ark Theory’s followers are just following someone’s suggestions but for now, let’s concentrate on the details.
The timeline I mentioned above assumes that the Ark was discovered by a human expedition following the clues the Protheans left on Mars. This allegedly happened in 2149, the same year the frozen Charon relay (assumed to be one of the Pluto’s moons) was discovered. However, since the humanity didn’t have the know-how or the technology necessary to properly research and activate the Ark at the time, the discovery has been kept under wraps. The research carried out under such circumstances yielded no significant scientific results and was suspended few years later for almost three decades.
The first breakthrough happened in 2183 when admiral Hackett, together with a group of high ranking Alliance officers, took Commander Shepard’s warnings against the Reaper threat seriously. Subsequently, some of the best Asari, Salarian and Turian scientist were allowed to participate in the research of the Ark while keeping it secret at the same time. Two years later, in 2185, Liara T’Soni became the Shadow Broker and started pouring her vast, newly acquired resources into investigation that, she hoped, would uncover a way to stop the Reaper invasion. Her search has brought her to Kahje – the homeworld of the Hanar and the Drell – where she discovered a set of encryption keys granting access to archives hidden on Mars (The story is depicted in the fourth issue of Mass Effect: Homeworlds comic and we visit the Mars archives during Mass Effect 3) and several other planets. Soon after, she shared her findings with Admiral Hackett.
Thanks to the data she acquired, the scientist researching the Ark discovered its identity as a gigantic mass relay leading to the Andromeda galaxy that could possibly provide an escape route. The Citadel Council accepted Alliance’s request for assistance and helped arrange a contingency plan to evacuate the Milky Way in case the Crucible proved to be ineffective. That’s when the ARKCON or, perhaps, Ark Contingency was born. The Ark was activated and soon the first group of explorers ventured into the unknown. It is unclear if, and with what results, the Protheans and/or other civilization preceding them made use of the Ark in previous cycles, but it is almost certain that they at least thoroughly researched it.
When Shepard’s mission on Thessia ended up in failure and the data from the Prothean beacon hidden there were seized by Cerberus, the Ark Contingency began frantic preparations as the journey to Andromeda galaxy became a possibility that needed to be seriously taken into account. This would be the true meaning of the Asari Councilor’s words, when she mentioned that “Plans must be put in motion.” and “Continuity of civilization has to be considered”, during the conversation with Commander Shepard. The preparations were in full swing: resources, raw materials and ships had to be amassed as well as a sufficient number of soldiers and civilians to ensure the survival and expansion of the new settlements. The war with the Reapers wasn’t over yet but the ARKCON fleet awaited the orders to evacuate through the Ark, should the battle for Earth be lost.
When, during the final of Mass Effect 3, the team assaulting the Conduit in London was annihilated by the Harbinger, the Alliance Command acknowledged the situation to be hopeless and issued an immediate evacuation order to the ARKCON fleet. As we know, Shepard miraculously survived and managed to activate the Crucible altering the face of the Milky Way as we know it. As a result, the entire mass relay network was either destroyed or rendered useless. The members of the ARKCON expedition, however, have no idea what transpired after they left and – assuming it wasn’t a one-way relay like the original Conduit - have been depraved of a way to return as the Ark was destroyed or disabled. Even if the cycle continued – a scenario NeroJoe hasn’t considered on his timeline – and the Ark remained hidden from the Reapers, it would be unusable as the intelligent civilizations that launched the ARKCON fleet would have been harvested. Either way, the Andromeda galaxy would be unreachable for many thousand years. This marks the beginning of Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Builders of the Ark
The most important question left to be answered – other than the technical matters – is, obviously, the Ark’s origin. The most probable candidate would have been a long extinct species possessing a highly advanced civilization; not necessarily the Protheans, as NeroJoe suggests. We can’t discard the possibility that the Ark, like the Crucible, was created with the input of multiple civilizations spanning across many cycles. Or perhaps, it was built by the Citadel Council races after the last war with the Reapers although it seems like the least believable of the explanations.
To make the ancient origin of the Ark more plausible, I’d like to point at how the technical advancement level varied among different races and cycles in the span of known chronology. For example, it took the Reapers a few hundred years to wipe the Protheans in the last cycle. As we go further back in time we find traces of progressively more technologically advanced civilizations. The technology to disable a Reaper with a single shot existed 37 million years back, as proves the discovery of the unnatural Great Rift Valley on the planet Klendagon (Hawking Eta cluster, Century system). The civilization possessing the technical capabilities to create such a devastating weapon could have been able to build its own mass relays. Let’s return to the Crucible for a moment – its initial concept and designs must have originated from a very advanced civilization as well. What’s more important, it is more than possible that the Ark may not be a typical mass relay as we know them.
The mass relay network, including the Citadel, was created as an experiment on a galactic scale intended to accelerate and guide the evolution of organic civilizations and improve the efficiency of subsequent harvests. This leads us to a conclusion that the preceding harvests faced more difficulties since the Reapers were fewer in numbers and the civilizations could develop in unanticipated ways. The Ark may well predate the relay network but determining its accurate age may prove difficult if not outright impossible, just like in the case of mass relays. The earliest war with the Reapers we know of could have taken place as long as 1 billion years ago – that’s the supposed age of the Leviathan of Dis, a Reaper corpse found on the planet Jartar (Hades Gamma cluster). Another thing is the Ark’s supposed application; was it designed as a way to escape the clutches of the Reapers or was it intended for colonizing new galaxies?
Whatever was the original purpose of the Ark – and remember that the name was most likely given by the humans - during “our” cycle it was clearly intended as an escape route. An additional hint can be found in BioWare’s designs, full of symbols and references. For instance, the name of the Omega-4 relay was most likely inspired by the combined meanings of the final letter of the Greek alphabet – the omega, associated with death or an end – and the number 4, considered bad luck in several far-east countries and also associated with death (the reading of 4 sounds almost identical to the word “death” and is feared so much that it spawned something called tetrafobia). You can see how the name “Ark” may be a reference to the Noah’s Ark – meaning salvation from a disaster and hope for a new beginning.
Skeptics may ask: how is that possible that the Ark was conveniently discovered during “our” cycle? Well, firstly: as I mentioned before, we don’t know if the Ark has actually been used before and, if so, what happened to the ones that have used it. Secondly: the relays have no thermal (or other) emission, making them very hard to detect. Even if the Ark had different emission signatures, you could just cram it in an unexplored or hard-to-reach region of the Milky Way and/or deactivate it (like it has been done with multiple relays in the Mass Effect trilogy) to keep it relatively well hidden.
Brave new world
According to the leaks, which are becoming more believable after recent developments, in Mass Effect: Andromeda we will control a pioneer looking for a new home for humanity, somewhere in the Helius cluster (with roughly 100 planetary systems available) – a fitting task when you think about the game’s exploration focus. The official sources have revealed that the game’s protagonist will be human, but it definitely won’t be the N7 operator shown on this year’s E3 teaser. The hero’s/heroine’s concept art can be found on BioWare’s official blog. The armor we see shares the black-orange color scheme of the ARKCON logo instead of the famous N7 black-red. An unimportant detail or, perhaps, is it something more significant?
An interesting and unanswered, for the time being, question remains which species have travelled through the Ark. Judging from the leaks and the official teaser we can expect the Krogan and possibly the Asari to make an appearance alongside humans. But what happened to the other Council races and other species fighting side by side against the Reapers? How many of them will seek refuge in the Andromeda galaxy? Finally, should none of the Mass Effect 3 endings become canon, we will most likely have to say goodbye to Quarians and the Geth.
Among the voices in the discussion we find speculations that the enemies we see fighting with the main character in the Mass Effect: Andromeda trailer may be ancient Protheans. Some similarities in architecture and physique allegedly prove this claim. I think it’s a bit too farfetched, to be honest. I believe them to be one of the completely new races which are bound to be introduced by the game. Or, perhaps, they have come from the Milky Way in similar circumstances and are the remnants of one of the numerous races the Reapers harvested before that we never had a chance to learn about.
The Ark Theory, just as The Indoctrination Theory a while ago, certainly has its strong points and sounds very plausible overall; especially since the official info seems to match it quite well. However, I wouldn’t get ahead of myself if I were you. Let’s not forget that all of this is just wild (albeit creative) speculations. Unfortunately, until the actual setting of Mass Effect: Andromeda is officially revealed – and it won’t happen soon – all we can do is speculate. And hope.