Some time ago, I began a project to write a future history. That is, I wanted to write a coffee-table book full of stories about space-going disasters… but written hundreds of years from now.
This story is one of the chapters from this work in progress, Hull Breach. The idea is a series of interconnected stories from the earliest years of humankind’s colonisation of space to the later years of warfare, disaster and faster-than-light travel.
The story of the loss of the Forrestal is a unique one amongst space-going disasters, for several reasons. Firstly, it was one of the largest vessels ever lost in space outside of combat. Secondly, it was one of the largest economic losses in a single disaster ever. Thirdly, and most strangely… only a single life was lost, and many people have argued that the life lost was not technically part of the same incident, even if it was an unintended consequence.
So what happened?
Crime is present wherever humans are; it’s just the scope that varies. Draconian measures are often taken to stop small crimes from happening, while for the most part, since formal laws have existed, large-scale crimes of all sorts have been committed, and will continue to be.
But the scale of this crime is, at least logistically, probably one for record books.
Let’s meet the SV Forrestal. As the name might hint at, Forrestal did not begin life as a civilian vessel. She was, at the time, one of the largest military transports ever built. Part of what was initially known as the Jerodd M. Kane class until the unfortunate destruction of the vessel bearing that name, Forrestal was a unique vessel. Constructed in 2167 at the Titan Ship Yards in the Sol system, she was one of the largest and most clumsy-looking jump-capable freighters ever created.
See, the problem is – she pre-dated what we now know… that dependant on the energy input to the jump field stabiler, de-structuralisation of certain elements toward the outer edge of the field could take place, as explained by Svetlana Medrov’s famous Third Theorem of Space-Time Compression. In short? She was too big for her jump drive, and over time the outer segments of her sprawling hull began to lose structural stability.
She began to literally fall apart.
Thing is, every ship in her close, obviously, had this problem. In fact it was what destroyed the lead ship in her class, the before-mentioned J. M. Kane.
Of the eight military transport vessels in her class, the Forrestal was one of only three that survived into retirement. Neither she nor her sister ships were given a clean enough bill of health to fly again, but due to various engineering issues throughout her career, the Forrestal had performed significantly fewer jumps than the others. As a result, where the others that survived past the publicisation of Medrov’s theory were scrapped, the MTS Forrestal was sold to a civilian owner and re-registered as the SV Forrestal. It was considered too dangerous or her to fly deep into space, and her jump system had been removed after she was declared unsafe for jump travel, but this didn’t matter to the owner. Surprisingly, it was sold for a mere 280,000,000 credits… and not to a ship broker.
The new owner was an import/export specialist and self-made billionaire, quite famous at the time, by the name of Nami Tristram. She owned stakes in numerous import/export concerns, but outside of her own private yachts, owned no ships – certainly nothing commercial.
You see, the famous billionaire had a specific in mind: it may be unsafe to fly, but the Forrest was still an enormous structure with fully functional life support systems and heavy armour. Nami Tristram bought it to turn into a freeport.
A freeport is the same now as it has been for centuries – an unintended consequence of law. When carrying goods, be it between countries in the era of sea-going vessels or between solar systems in the era of the intersolar colonisation, taxes are almost always required to be paid on arrival, usually a percentage of the cost of the goods you’re shipping.
So when a voyage has multiple legs through individual state bodies (say, carrying goods from Sol to Alpha Centauri then finally via a different vessel to Lorthal), one would legally have to pay tax on entering AC sovereign territory, despite it not being the intended destination.
As a result, freeports exist. Spaces or buildings which, not unlike embassies, have unique laws applying to them, different to that of the host nation. Usually, the upshot is this: you can store your goods at a freeport and not pay tax. The theory is it’s just temporary, but historically there has not been much of a limit on the amount of time you can store goods somewhere, as long as you’re willing to continue to rent the space.
So, the Forrestal travelled for the last time under its own power to the Barras Orbital Facility around Alpha Centauri B. One of the largest space station structures outside of Sol, she was notable for being a very popular mid-way destination between Sol and the outer colony worlds, and something else important: its gravity was generated by internal centrifugal spin, not by rotating the whole structure.
The reason for this makes perfect sense – as a trade hub, some spaces needed microgravity for human habitation or storage, where-as others might be better kept as near to zero gravity as possible.
The upshot, however, was this – the Barras facility had a non-moving exterior hull, allowing very large ships to dock comfortably. So, a long-term lease taken out on three of the largest airlocks on the stern section of the outer rim of the facility, the Forrestal was docked for what was to be the last time.
She then her interior rebuilt, knocking out walls and replacing the thousands of bunk beds and industrial storage spaces with various sizes of cargo compartments.
Within six months she was almost always nearly half full of goods coming and going.
Five years later came a very important historical event – the collapse of the Lalande Federation. With the power structure gone, people with money fled. Many of the richest, however, saw the writing on the wall and got out early. Before the Lalande economy collapsed taking its dollar with it, many of the richest people had left, translating their soon-to-be-worthless Lalande Dollars into something that would still have value. Then, as now, a good way to store large amounts of money in a small amount of space is this: rare gemstones, artworks, and other things that not only cost an enormous amount of money, but occupy little space and are highly unlikely to depreciate in value.
The problem is, if you’ve just bought the famous “Portrait of a Solar Explorer” work by Spandas Kai for nearly a hundred million converted credits, you don’t want to take it with you only to pay, say, an 8% import tax on its value.
The result? The Forrestal’s internal storage space, registered entirely as a freeport under Alphan law, went from mostly-full-of-cargo to absolutely stuffed to the brim with expensive, portable objects of great value.
It became a tax haven of sorts. It’s estimated by one fraud specialist that nearly 78 billion converted credits worth fo goods were stored in that hulk at its peak.
Unfortunately for the owners, certain people began to figure this out. It began, as a lot of big moments of theft do, with a combination of opportunity, and need. As it happened, one of the dockmasters of Barras was, as his deputy later put it, ‘lousy with gambling’. His name was James Dreign, and he loved cards. He owed money. Lots of it. And he began to realise something: being a freeport on an already-protected station, the Forrestal was nowhere near well-guarded enough to house the many, many expensive goods they had aboard.
The problem is that getting goods off the ship might be easy, but getting them off the station would be hard. Security checkpoints, scans, license checks – all for ensuring people don’t evade import duties, of course – would make that part too difficult even for an insider to pull off.
So he forgot about the idea. It might have passed into history as just another random idea from a disgruntled man, except that within six months he would be fired from his job, at least nominally for drinking on the job.
Dreign went from a nice stateroom befitting his status as Senior Dockmaster of one of the biggest civilian ports outside of Sol, to a tiny rented hotel room in the lower levels of the low-spin section of Barras.
Hung over and bitter, his mind wandered back to the Forrestal. He would later describe this in an interview (then under a pseudonym) for the Proxima Centauri Buzz, a scandal rag doing what may have been its first vaguely-serious article.
Dreign claims he went to his gambling associates and told them he could pay off the debt he owed them, but not in cash. In a tip. A huge tip.
It took him a week to convince them to go ahead with his plan, and it’s not too surprising anyone would think he was mad. The plan? Steal the Forrestal. Entirely.
While docked to the facility every sensor and security officer would be trained on the vessels presently docked, even long-term hulks like the Forrestal. But if they got it even a few thousand metres away from the station… most of the external sensors, which are designed for docking security, would no longer be able to detect them as they stripped her of everything that had value.
It was a plan so grand and absurd that it’s a wonder that even one other person got involved. But the relatively low risks (for the people bank-rolling the operation, anyway) versus the high financial reward was enough to convince at least two still-unnamed grey figures from the facility’s huge population to front up the cash, equipment and manpower for the job.
The plan was simple: cut the vessel free, use tiny manoeuvring thrusters to push her well-wards away from the facility and toward the planet, then unload her precious cargo in the hours before she would burn up on re-entry into the planet.
Now, on almost any other station this would have been impossible. If nothing else, people would look outside their portholes and see that the biggest ship docked with the station was gone – or floating outside, at least. But this was where Barras’ unique design benefited the thieves: she had no external portholes on the lower, non-spinning stern part of her superstructure, and nothing else docked there but for the Forrestal.
Instead she had external cameras, which could in theory be set to loop the same footage, at least buying them a few more hours.
So, in practice that wasn’t simple. Many things needed to be dealt with.
Dreign would have to call in favours with people he once worked with, paying them off to disable the docking sensors on the three airlocks. He’d need the person in charge of the life support system to let him sneak in a hack so that the ship wouldn’t fire off alarms when the pressure outside airlocks 67a, 67b and 67c all registered a huge drop within moments of each other.
Beyond this, he also needed to do it when the one watch officer on the otherwise-lifeless Forrestal (it was mostly defended from thieves by an electronic security system which would need to be disabled) was taking a break – a longer than usual break, funded by some of Dreign’s new business associates.
Another problem he had to contend with is that one big danger for the Barras facility was ships burning too close. RCS was not allowed to be fired near the station, and certainly not main drives. As a result, heat sensors were set up all along the exterior of the hull. So using cutting torches to remove the small stubby airlock links between Barras and the Forrestal just wouldn’t do.
As a result, they snuck in some cold-cutting torches, normally used for specialised repair work in dangerous atmospheres. These would reduce the temperature of a specific part of the metal airlock hull so they could be cut apart. Temperature alone wouldn’t easily do this, of course – a space craft’s hull, even the airlock stubs used at stations, are meant to operate at temperatures far below zero. But by reducing the temperature of just small patches of the metal, the integrity of the hull would be sufficiently ruined to allow the tiniest amount of pressure to tear the airlocks free.
It is said that this enormous heist’s initial stages – getting the hulk away from the station – would involve merely eight people, including organisers such as Dreign. Seven of them would eventually be sent to jail.
On a night three weeks later, every piece was put in place. Two members of the C-shift docking staff, not knowing what they were being paid off for, ignored or shut off certain sensor readings. Four people with low-power emergency MMUs departed via another airlock on the Forrestal, mounted ultra-low-power ion drive vents in the right places on the hull, then began to cold-cut the airlock tubes.
Two hours later, in what this author considers one of the most underrated acts of spacegoing engineering ever, the Forrestal began to drift free of her moorings.
The air pressure from the airlocks was enough to give the giant vessel a tiny push away from the facility.
What happened next must have been one of the most stressful moments for everyone involved – they could not fire the ion drives for some time, until they were sure even a tiny burn wouldn’t trigger the heat sensors on Barras. So they had to wait for the huge thing to open to at least a hundred metres. Given how little of a push she’d been given by the venting of air, this took hours.
With the external camera feeds on loop and the Forrestal now drifting away, people both inside the facility and still floating outside in MMUs must have waited with baited breath.
Then, mere minutes before it was considered a safe time to make the minor burn to send the Forrestal descending down to the atmosphere of the planet, something unexpected happened: an unscheduled boat got picked up on sensors.
An emergency beacon was on – the boat in question, the Mavis Marr, had suffered a minor electrical fault and had, just two days after leaving Barris, come back for repairs.
Realising there was now a chance worker bees would leave the station to help the Marr back to port, and that the Marr herself may indeed notice the enormous ship drifting away from the station, someone made the call to burn early.
As it happens, the decision may not have, for them, been the right one. Heat sensors did indeed go off as the Forrestal’s makeshift ion thrusters burned – just enough that the specialist in charge of thruster safety, Tara Xing, was woken up by the shift officer.
Five minutes later, she was at her post, performing sensor scans, wondering why a decent-sized burn had been detected, consistent with (ironically) station-keeping burns by large vessels.
Within half an hour, Xing’s by-the-book scans showed anomalies, and she ordered both a reboot of the external sensor systems (including the cameras) and heat sensors.
While that reboot was taking place, she then ordered an active radar sweep, something rarely done by a commercial station in peace-time.
At first, seeing the huge object appear on the sensor station, Xing thought there was some kind of computer glitch. Surely someone would have noticed if a ship the size of a small battlecruiser was a mere kilometre away?
When the cameras came back on, Xing realised right away just what the object was.
Within moments, alarms were going off and a security cutter had been ordered to head straight for Barras.
Interestingly, as nobody considered that anyone in their right mind would try to steal a giant space craft like the Forrestal, the first thought (and the only thought until some time after it burned up in atmosphere) was actually just that there had been some kind of catastrophic emergency with the docking systems in the rarely-used well-ward section of the facility.
The cutter was six hours away at high speed, and that may well have been enough. The people in the MMU had a small skiff waiting for them, and that time alone could have been enough to get at least the most valuable items from the freeport aboard and get them fleeing for safe port somewhere else.
Unfortunately, something else went wrong: the four emergency ion thrusters were not well-maintained. How could they be? They were unable to be legally bought for obvious reasons, meaning they were salvage.
And one… didn’t work properly. So somewhere in the middle section of the bow of the Forrestal, an ion drive slowly continued its burn, not only continuing the enormous vessel’s descent toward the planet’s atmosphere, but also beginning a slow turn. The Forrestal began a slow, ungraceful arc, spinning so much within moments that the salvage team no longer felt they could get aboard.
So, making a call of self-preservation, the skiff boarded the engineers in MMUs and began to get out of there before the cutter arrived.
They wouldn’t make it. A warning shot and several communications were all it took to get the skiff turned around and back to Barras for jail and trials.
Meanwhile, with nothing else to do, the Forrestal continued to spin faster and faster as she descended into the atmosphere.
She would burn-up as the Barras crew and, by this point, the whole solar system, watched in horror. She took with her an estimated six hundred works of priceless art, jewellery, not to mention the usual stash of everything on its way to other ports, from electronics to freeze-dried foodstuffs for outer colonies.
All but Dreign were caught within a day for their part in the attempted heist.
Dreign used his knowledge of the station to make it onto a freighter bound for Proxima, where he finally made several interviews (likely for the money) before attempting to vanish into obscurity.
His body was found, stabbed repeatedly, six months later in a backwater space station, making him – arguably, at least – the only human casualty of the famous attempted heist. Nobody was ever tried for his murder.
As for the financial loss? In the end the insurance payout was made, but not enough, due to the circumstances, to cover the enormous value of the goods on the hulk. In fact, the total amount of the insurance payout is believed to be in the order of just a few million, to the Forrestal’s owner, Nami Tristram.
So, given she bought the hulk for under a million converted credits initially and presumably earned much that back in operating profits anyway in the several years it’d been a freeport… Nami Tristram may in fact be the only person to come out of this incident in a better financial situation than when she went in.
Tristram never made a public statement on the disaster, and never went back into the freeporting business.