The Asteroid Belt

Between Jupiter and Mars, its borders vaguely defined, lies the asteroid belt, or simply, the Belt. With Luna becoming increasingly civilized with each passing day, this is where the true loners, iconoclasts, and misanthropes of the System go – along with miners, scientists, doctors, and homesteaders. The Belt is the borderland, the frontier. Constant danger and constant opportunity coexist here. The brave come to strike it rich and the foolish go to a cold and forgotten death, drifting alone and unknown between the flying mountains.

While a few scout ships made it to the larger asteroids in the early 1990s, it was not until just after the turn of the century that the long voyage to the Belt became inexpensive enough to launch large-scale settlement and exploration. The Earth League built the first Belt outpost, Ceres Station One, as a forward base with the intent of using it to launch scouts to the distant world of Jupiter.

Because of the difficulty and expense of hauling materials from Earth to the Belt, Ceres Station One (often simply called CS1) was designed as a bootstrap project, given just enough to get started. The 50 men and women sent there were assigned a difficult task: Create a self-sustaining industrial center using just the limited tools and supplies they’d taken with them from Earth. In the event of emergency, all they had was a small lifeboat that they could aim toward the inner system and hope an Earth Patrol ship could find and reach them in time. Mining pods scoured the nearby rocks for raw materials. Industrial smelters converted the metals and minerals into building supplies. The same craft that mined the local asteroids for metals burrowed deep into Ceres itself, creating open spaces where hydroponics could grow. The crew converted the Tesla coils from one of their ships to provide energy until the atomic generators could be fired up. A year went by, and the base grew ever larger and more complete…as did the population. Four children were born by the end of the first year of settlement.

Once CS1 was up to spec, Earth launched other ships, carrying more workers and engineers and a cadre of Earth Patrol pilots and shipwrights. With this influx of labor and supplies, the keel of the exploration ship Athena was laid down in early 2002, and its electron drive was first test-fired only six months later. On Christmas Eve 2002, it took off for Jupiter. While this was going on, people began establishing other bases throughout the Belt. The Earth Patrol tended to view the Belt as a shield around the inner system, and it wanted to secure it. While no one knew of any “alien” threats, or what Jupiter might hold, securing the Belt simply seemed like a good idea. It was.

Three years after Athena had been launched, the largest space warfleet in Earth history tore through the Belt. Without CS1, CS2, Pallas Base One, and Vesta Outpost, the fleet would have been past Mars before Earth got any warning. As it was, those four bases provided much needed information and firepower, taking out several of the Overlord’s battleships and forcing him to hold back additional forces during the initial assault. As the Solar War dragged on, the remaining bases (Vesta was lost in 2006; CS2, in 2007) became the staging areas for the counterattack.

While Ceres Station Two has been rebuilt, the charred and blasted ruins of Vesta Outpost remain to this day as a monument to courage in the face of overwhelming firepower, and cadets of the Solar Patrol often make a pilgrimage there before their graduation.

After the Red Hive war, though, the Belt became more than a series of military outposts. While the population had been growing slowly from 2010 to 2020, it exploded in the next decade. Technological improvements and the human urge for “elbow room” drove thousands, then tens of thousands, to the Belt. The Belt was rich in metals, minerals, and radioactives – all the things Earth needed desperately. The more the Belt grew, the more the Belt needed, so more people came to fulfill those needs, and the boom cycle was on. Luna was metal-poor; Earth was protected against rapacious environmental destruction; Venus’ thick fog turned industrial equipment to rusted goo (and the locals took a dim view of anyone draining their swamps). Therefore, the only source for raw materials to feed the burgeoning post-war consumer, military, and industrial demand was the Belt. “The asteroids are made of gold” was the saying, and while most found nothing but a sustenance living, enough struck it rich that the dream was kept alive.

Over a million people live in the Belt. Roughly 100,000 of them dwell in Ceres City, a sprawling above- and underground complex that has grown up in a haphazard fashion around and between the four huge Ceres Station complexes. Ten thousand or so dwell on each of the other three major asteroids, about a thousand each on the next hundred largest asteroids, and the rest are scattered throughout the Belt.

The Belt is mostly inhabited by family groups or tiny companies, each of which has claimed one of the million or so asteroids of about a mile in size. These are mined for metals, radioactives, frozen gasses, rare minerals and crystals, and whatever else can be stripped from them. Some are used as nothing more than mines; others become homesteads, with domed farming settlements dotting the surfaces and underground passages providing massive amounts of living space. Earth isn’t crowded, but the huge megacities do not leave much room to stretch one’s arms. Out in the Belt, anyone can have a mansion…if they aren’t too concerned with the view.

So many metallic rocks in one place make radio communication spotty, and the vast distances of the Belt means news travels slowly. Word of mouth, or short-range radio picked up by one rock and transmitted to another, are the main ways news gets around. In the isolated homesteads and the small trading centers (with populations of 100 to 500), reputation counts for more than money. The nature of the Belt is such that “clusters” of worthwhile rocks are separated by millions of miles of dust, void, and space junk, and each cluster is fairly autonomous. Belters come to the Belt to enjoy free and independent lives, but survival requires cooperation and community. It has been said there are only two laws in the Belt: “Help your neighbor, because it could be you next time” and “keep your hands to yourself.”

Each cluster has a primary settlement at its heart, set up on the largest rock. Here, industrial corporations of Earth bargain for metals. Here, the farmers sell their crops to the miners. Here, everyone comes to blow off steam, swap news, and enjoy life on the System’s edge. While no one wears cowboy hats (except a few folks from the American Southwest) and no horses live within a hundred million miles, the settlement still has something of an Old West feel to the place, in style and character if not in garb and technology.

The Asteroid Belt

Tales of the Solar Patrol: Class of 2058 sirlarkins sirlarkins