‘Unspoilt’, Louise Hughes

Illustrations © 2022 Eric Asaris

 [ Orbit, © 2022 Eric Asaris ] A week into our planetary survey, we ran out of ginger biscuits. Karin announced it through the intercom and when I ignored her, banged her fist on the bulkhead between the cockpit and the carto lab.

I didn’t look away from my screen until the hatch opened and her head popped through.

“Brigitte,” she said. “Biscuits.”

“I bought you, like, eight packets on Central. Eight isn’t enough?”

“Did you hide some?”


“Well, then it’s not enough.” She waited for my response. “And, I think we’re going to have to go down there.”

I dragged my feet down off the desk. This was turning into that kind of conversation.


She leant against the closed window shutter, fingers hovering over the switch. “I know. I know. But I mean really this time. We need to go down there.”

The cockpit shutters slid upwards and the planet below us swept into view. Blue, for the most part. The kind of sapphire blue travel corps were so fond of using on holoboards. A series of archipelagos clung to the equator like dead ants.

There was nothing I couldn’t already see in the portfolio. Nothing the drones weren’t streaming up to us as they hovered merrily through their scan pattern. Nothing that wasn’t plotted on Karin’s maps.

“Is it something from the reviews?”

She’d been quoting them at dinner. Only the 1-stars. The planet had previously belonged to WideScape Inc., a boutique adventure tourism provider. Family run. But it was on the outer edge of their interests and, following the death of the matriarch, the heirs sold off some of their assets. Consolidating their profile, I think they called it.

C-T-Universe had snapped it right up, shuffled it into their vast bank and let it turn for a few years. Now here we were, updating the portfolio for the new management.

“They’re going to stick resorts on all those.” I waved my hand at the islands. “Maybe a few underwater. Some sky cities. Usual sort of thing. The drones’ll flag anything of note.”

Someone had declared war on someone else. All the corps were scouring their portfolios for places far, far away from the conflict zone. No one wanted to share their holiday with squaddies on their way to the front.

The drones flagged two more sites of interest, little green stars pinging to life on my screen. If I didn’t deal with them before the drones moved on, we’d fall behind schedule. Karin wouldn’t be the one accounting for it when we got back. Writing up the bill was my job.

“It’s a mapping irregularity,” she said. She reached for the screen over my shoulder, sweeping my work away with two flicks of her wrist. “See. Here.”

The satellite image she brought up showed the same clear blue sea as the rest, clouds sprayed across like half-eaten mashed potato.

“There’s nothing there.”

Karin stood up, arms folded, smug. “Yes, but watch.” She flicked through the images, bringing up one taken at the end of the survey, and laid the two side-by-side.

The clouds were identical.

“It’s just clouds.”

I really, really didn’t want to get my boots out of the locker. I didn’t want to decide which coat to take, or to have to change my hair to accommodate that most irritating of planetary phenomena—weather.

“The clouds are hiding something. The clouds aren’t real. I mean, they’re good, but… it’s just the water around there. I can tell. There’s something under the clouds.”

“I’m not going down there.”

“Ahhh, Brigitte, come on. I’ll make tea.”


“For the rest of the job.”

I hate cooking. It’s completely unnecessary and we were saving up for a proper CopyOven.

I chose the medium terrain boots and Karin had the coats out ready by the time I finished landing Pod on what passed for the coast of the largest island. I hovered just below the cloud layer and invited her up to the cockpit to come and see the small smudge of land the clouds had hidden.

She didn’t even answer the intercom.

The islands were tiny, even for planetary land bodies. They’d be specs of asteroids in space. Dust. They were also freezing. Karin glared at me from the sunlit sand, as I carefully descended from the hatch with my gloved hands stuffed deep in my pockets. She’d come out in a shirt, sleeves rolled radically up as far as her elbow. I pulled my knitted hat down tighter over my ears. My ears didn’t like untreated air. It dried out the skin and then it peeled.

“So, who did the survey last time,” I asked to distract her from my shivering. We started along the beach to find somewhere the cliffs weren’t so high. The sun was very bright. I was going to have such a bad head later. My boots sank into the sand, which made walking feel like I was dragging myself along.

Karin bounded. “In-house people, I think. I’ll check the portfolio.” She pulled out her com and started flicking through with her thumb. “Aye. It was done in-house by WideScape.”

We usually encoded our work with a watermark, but the corps ran it through whatever software they had and took it off again. From my experience, in-house surveyors used the company watermark and recorded even less of a presence than we freelancers.

“I can probably see who was on their books at the time the survey was done.”

I shrugged as we stepped off the sand, into grasses that scratched my hands. “Doesn’t matter.” The islands, much to Karin’s visible disappointment, were as boring as islands could be. Not like asteroids at all, with their variable gravity and unrestricted star views. Blue sky, blue water, and green leaves so bright they made me wince. There was no subtlety or shade to the colours, the air was sticky, and I tripped over trailing dead branches on the path three times.

“Could do with a tidy up,” I muttered. Karin had suggested we climb to the top of a low hill with a single stunted tree at the peak, and now I clung to the tree for breath, bent over a stitch in my side. “I don’t get it. Why hide this? It’s just an island. It’s not even big enough to build a hotel on.”

The drones would flag it up as inconsequential, worthless, expensive to process…

“It’s beautiful though, isn’t it.”

She stood with her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun, which was brighter than anything our contacts were designed to filter. The sand clung to her leggings, all the way up to the knee, and we’d be finding it on our socks for weeks.

“No,” I said. “Not really. Can we go back inside now?”

“Do we have a shovel?”

“A what?”

“You know, for digging.”

“Why would we need to dig?” The drones could do that, to take samples, but I’d seen people digging with their hands in picture books as a child and didn’t fancy scraping earth out of my fingernails. Sticking my hands into the ground. It was disgusting.

“For treasure.” She beamed at me, arms wide. “There must be treasure. Why else would they hide it on the maps.”

“Maybe there was but they already came back for it.”

“Hmm.” Her arms sank a little.

“Come on. I’ll get the drones to have a look. Add it to their survey.”

She ran down the hill, whooping and throwing her hands in the air, then stumbled to a halt and knelt down in the long grass.

“Aww, look.”


No. When I staggered down to reach her she had her fingers cupped around the head of a small purple flower, shaped like a bell. Unlike all the flowers in pots around our living space, it blended into its surroundings. There was no way for anything to stand out, no way to appreciate their shape and flavour. No clarity at all.

The place was a mess and a muddle. Left too long to go wild.

“That’s the point,” Karin said as we unclipped our boots on the hatch, side-by-side in the shade, as the water crept up on us like hunger. “It’s supposed to be that way.”

“I’ll send the drones over.”

But she clasped my shoulder as she climbed back inside. “Not yet. I’m not finished investigating.”

I swung myself up and slapped the button to close the hatch and shut the hard air out. I wanted to get back to work, because everything I’d left unfinished was unspooling in my head.

“There’s nothing there,” I said.

“I know. That’s why it’s so interesting. Don’t you think it’s interesting?”

“I think it’s cold.”

I waved my hand over the temperature controls as the hatch seals engaged. It would take a few minutes to get the air back up to normal, so I stayed in my coat back up to the cockpit. Karin followed me instead of going straight back to her lab. In the continued absence of ginger biscuits or a CopyOven with which to make them, she’d found the breadsticks. She nibbled on the end of one, gesticulating with it like a conductor as she talked.

“Did you log we were going down there?” she asked. The sky outside the windows began to lose its lurid blue as we rose, shifting back into satisfying blackness.

I shook my head.

“Don’t send the drones.”

“What? Why? I thought you wanted to investigate?”

“I do.” She had that airy way about her, like her thoughts were floating invisibly all over the cabin and she was looking for them. “I just don’t want, you know, anyone to know I’m investigating.”

“But if I have the drones send up some photographs, you can have a proper look, and then you might spot something.”

It was impossible to properly take in a place while you were existing in it. Especially if the place was new. We liked to put all the photographs, charts, data readings of all kinds, in projections up on the walls in the living sections while we were working on a survey project. Karin liked to go to sleep with her half-formed maps over our heads.


She stopped my hand on the controls and her fingers were still chill from the planet, still with sand dust clinging.

“Go and wash all that off. Don’t get it on the screen.”

It was bad enough that I was going to have to get the hoover out later. We could not afford scratches on the in-built tech. Not if she wanted ginger biscuits on tap.

“Don’t send the drones while I’m gone.”

I waved her away. “I won’t, I won’t, I promise.”

Even if I did, it would be hours before they got around to it. The drones were busy and their readings kept streaming up to my terminal while I parked us back in orbit. They were focussing on a much larger chain of islands, flagging potential construction sites, shallow lagoons where people could paddle, wide beaches, climb-able cliff faces.

Karin grinned. “Go back to your data. I’ll start tea.”

I spent a fulfilling twenty minutes checking the drones’ work. Photographs rolled out across my screen but after the two-hundredth image of a forest path, after I’d analysed the sensor readings and flagged several as safe for clearing and several others for aesthetic protection, it started to nag at me.

She’d left it on the other screen. Two images of clouds. Two identical images of clouds over a boring island.

Why hide something that boring?

According to my criteria it had no aesthetic or development value. I would have concurred with the drones’ assessment and put it far down the list of the planet’s notable features. It had no symmetry, no contrasts, nothing sweeping and the temperatures were in the mid to low range. Any attempt to build on it would probably sink. The ocean around it was barely navigable and full of shoals. The flora wasn’t unique. The fauna was non-existent.

It would be tea soon. I could smell cinnamon and cumin and fried onions. I could give Karin a few answers, so we could have some semblance of a quiet evening.

As freelancers, we have to pay for access to the planetary chart database ourselves, and we don’t have pro access, so it’s slow. I paused the automatic backup upload while I ran the search, for the most basic questions she had asked.


In-house, of course, which wasn’t any help. There was the WideScape entry, complete with dates and purpose (“low development, tourism, business interest”). Dates they’d acquired the real estate, dates of application to conduct a survey, date of approval and by whom granted, date carried out. Everything looked to be in order. Neat, tidy, boxes all filled.

The initial survey had taken ten weeks, which verged on the lengthy side for a world with so little land. That’s what in-house gets you. I would have quoted seven, Karin would have haggled up to eight, we would probably have been granted six. We’d been given four for the re-assessment based on the change of use from low development to high.

I found out who they were within five minutes from an archive of the WideScape public page.

“Here.” I put the tablet down on the counter next to the plates. “The in-house surveyors at WideScape when the original survey was done.”

She swept in to perch on the edge of my chair. “Huh. Who are they then? Pirates? Wealthy heirs to questionable fortunes? Any suspicions on why they would want to hide an island?”

I shoved her off with my elbow and raised an eyebrow at the pans on the hob. “No. At least, not that I can see. They don’t work there any more.”

“Hmm.” She spooned out the rice, which was a bit sticky because Karin just can’t get the hang of rice, and there was no point in complaining because we were saving up already. “Was this at the same time as they sold half their portfolio?”

Aha. “No. No, it wasn’t. It was about six months after they filed the survey for this planet. And it wasn’t cost-cutting because they hired two new surveyors within five weeks.”

“Five weeks, huh?”

The curry drowned the rice, and Karin handed me my cutlery.

“Yep. Five weeks.”

“Well, then.” She still had the breadsticks and she dipped them into the curry sauce, waving her knife around as she did so and sucking in air to cool her mouth. “So they were sacked.”


“Got to be. Job like that, doesn’t take five weeks to rehire. In-house, man. I’d sell you for that opportunity.”

“Thanks.” I blew on my fork and rice pinged off the bulkhead.

“They didn’t expect them to leave. So either, they ran off or they were sacked. Who’d run off from that job?”

I shrugged. “Company ratings are high. Maybe they…”

“Sacked them.”

“Aye, maybe.”

We munched in silence for five minutes. The lights shifted to twilight and the tablet hid the drone notifications. The charts blossomed on the walls and ceiling.

“I’ll just…”

Karin reached for the tablet but I beat her to it, slapping her hand away with a breadstick.

I checked both of their names in the survey database and found four charts. Before they’d been hired by WideScape. Like us, they’d started out as freelancers and got lucky.

“They wouldn’t quit then,” Karin said. “Bet they could afford a CopyOven.”

“Maybe they liked to cook.”

Jassia and Paolo Neeton. The names weren’t unique enough, even searched together.

“Try including the planets off the charts.”

“Ahh, there you go.”

I laid the tablet down next to my empty plate and flicked my fingers at it, summoning the air-display. Paolo Neeton. In orbit around a planet near what was now the military front. A planet not even WideScape would be able to off-load from their books right now.

He had dark hair, and skin a shade lighter than Karin’s. I had him on mute as he turned the camera to show the slowly turning orb outside his window. Karin zoomed the image so it took up half the wall, which looked a bit weird with all our charts over his face.

“What’s he doing?” Karin squinted at the video like that was going to help. I unmuted him instead.

 [ Unspoilt, © 2022 Eric Asaris ] Turned out, he was mixing cocktails. Cocktails named after the planet. Blonde-haired Jassia looped her arms around his neck and he let her test one. She spat it out, cursed and kissed him, and vanished back off screen.

Each video was a new planet, a new cocktail invention. They definitely wouldn’t have enough saved for a CopyOven if he spent it all on fancy alcohol in fancy colours, with fancy names. I hadn’t even heard of most of the bottles he held up. Or, they’d already bought a far more expensive CopyOven than we had saved to our wish list.

“In-house,” said Karin, nodding knowingly.

I washed up and she dried the dishes, then we took our cocoa and oranges to the beanbags in the corner furthest from the table. This was where we sat while we reviewed the day’s data. I began arranging the results of my drone surveys on the screen in front of us.

“You know,” said Karin as she dropped like a stone, plate and cup held aloft. “I think I recognise those names from somewhere.”

“What names?”

“The Neetons.”

She had her tablet and charts out now. We had to review the most northerly of the island groups and assess the likelihood of seismic activity. The drones had tagged it as likely based on their readings and it would have to go in the insurance report.

“I think I knew someone with that name in my creche.”

I’d taken my turn at the investigation. It was her move.

“No, more recently. Like, I don’t know, written down maybe.”

“I’m going to file this island as a potential quarry site. What do you think?”

Karin zoomed in on her chart, but her eyes were focussed on something about two metres behind it. “I think… yeah, whatever.”

Fine, quarry it would be then. Good hard rock. The corps preferred to get as much of their building materials in-situ and cut down on transport costs. Half the freight flyers in the region had been requisitioned.

“We should put in to survey for military bases when we get back,” I said. “I’ll have a look at the call-outs later.”

Wasn’t much later left. We had a strict sleep schedule to maximise work potential.

“Here, look. I knew I’d seen it somewhere.”

She had the original job outline up on her screen, with links to the various portfolio files and historical data. It wasn’t that much different from the database record. Originally surveyed by WideScape, now requiring change-of-use survey, charts transferred with purchase, the usual.


She jabbed her finger at a flagged note near the bottom. Usually it recorded major disasters or climate shifts since the last survey. We needed to know if a hundred square kilometres had imploded or been washed away so we could prioritise.

As far as I knew, there hadn’t been anything of the kind. One small volcanic eruption and a couple of minor cases of cliff erosion. Nothing the modelling wouldn’t deal with.

“Huh.” She’d clicked on the flag.

“What?” This was deliberate. She’d already read it. She was holding out on me. “Come on.”

She read it over again and I watched her eyes flicker, taking in each word on what was probably a very short note.

“The charts were stolen,” she said, still reading. “They stole them.”


“The Neetons.”

“Stole them. Why?”

“They sold them. This one and several other assets. I remember now, WideScape had to sell them cheap because they’d lost sole ownership of the charts.”

“No wonder CTU’s left them sitting doing nothing for years. Their customers take security very seriously, especially if unknown actors have detailed surveys of the rock your hotel is built on.”

“Doesn’t say who they sold them to though.” She cocked her head. “They were definitely sacked though. That clears that right up.”

We drank our cooled cocoa in gulps as Karin put the tablet down and brought her attention back to the chart.

“I think I’ve identified some potential mineral exploits over here, under the surface,” I said to move on. “I’ll flag them. They might not be interested.”

Tourists didn’t really like mining operations muscling in on their unspoilt wilderness holidays, but if they moved quickly the corp could get it done while the building work was still ongoing.

“Do you think they’re going to use the orbital? Or build a new one?”

I’d established our orbit on the opposite side of the planet because unoccupied and derelict inhabitation makes me queasy. We’ve had bad experiences with unattended system AI trying to hack us and whine about being abandoned.

“I’d be surprised if they don’t tow it straight into the sun,” said Karin with a shrug. “Can’t possibly deal with the numbers they’re looking at on the proposal.”

The lights continued to dim until we were squinting at our screens and I felt a headache coming on. Earlier than usual. Damn that blue refracted sunlight.

As I stood up and stretched, Karin handed me the remote for our audio system.

“Your turn,” she said.

I flicked through the story database and picked something light. Something set among the stars, but cosy. We’d finished an epic deep space adventure with pirates last night and I didn’t have the capacity for anything so involved. Keeping it all in my head when we were so deep into the survey gave me the weirdest dreams.

“If we get a military contract next, I think we should be able to get the CopyOven by the end of year,” I said as I rinsed my face in the sink. Karin’s reflection dragged her pyjamas on in the mirror. “Or do you want to stay back from the front?”

She stepped over and reached for her cleanser. “I don’t mind.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want you…” I turned a little to look at her eyes and not her reflection’s, trying to find the lie there.

“Really, I don’t mind. If you think it’ll be better pay, I’m up for it.”

But whatever she said, I’d keep us off the front line. I’d make sure we were far enough back even if it meant taking less. Karin had grown up on Hetrax. She wouldn’t do a job that meant wearing a uniform. Even those loose blue jerseys and caps some of the corps made their reps wear.

The story started playing as I changed. Karin shuffled to sit up against her pillow. She had the tablet, which was against our rules, and her eyes flickered fast as she scrolled.

“What?” I asked, as I set my hot water bottle to temperature and downed a glass of water. “Find something else.”


The word was familiar but I couldn’t place it.

She leant forward with the tablet still clutched in one hand, dragging her hair bobble out as she did so. “Unspoilt,” she repeated. “One of those anti-development groups. Setting up camp on uninhabited planets, chaining themselves to construction drones, that sort of thing. Remember, a year ago, maybe two. They arrested them all trying to blockade that planet… what was it?”

“Timant. So you think they sold the charts to them?”

“I know they did. It was in the news.”

I reached for the tablet and silenced the story for a moment while I read. She was right. They’d been caught when a drone spotted their irregular transmission, but the destination was a burner satellite. An investigation found they’d been recruited years before, in a bar on Central. I clicked through the next link to the connecting story. Guilty. Sentencing. Ten years apiece.

Karin punched her pillow and slammed her head back into it, and I held the tablet directly above my head as I scrolled.

“We could just be looking into this stuff because of the flag. Curiosity. Nothing wrong with that.” She turned over and looked right at me.

“I know.”

But it didn’t stop me searching the database.

“Jessia’s on a deep space station, out on the edge. Paolo’s in the other direction, nearer home. A station though.”

“Not on planetary penal colonies?”

“No. Processing stations. I have the charts. Want to see?”

She waved the screen away. “No. Turn it off.”

Karin was right. It wasn’t a legitimate use of the database.

“So,” I reached for the light control. “Should I send the drones to look at that island?”

She reached out and took my hand as the stars winked into view in the darkness above our heads, decorating Karin’s charts with pinprick light.

“No,” she said after a pause. “It was beautiful.”

“But, if it’s a security issue. We need to…”

“It’s not. It’s just a beautiful island someone wants to stay that way.”

“Even if they can’t come and see it because they’re stuck in prison?”

“They’re in prison for selling charts, not hiding an island.” She squeezed my hand. “Don’t worry about it.”

I didn’t understand why hiding a speck of cold nothingness was important but that was Karin. If I understood everything, life would be so dull. Early mornings, the way she looked at a map and translated it into kaleidoscope reality in her head, romance novels, and ginger biscuits.

For her, I’d delete the flight records.

“They were good, those clouds. I didn’t even see them. We haven’t the time, anyway, if you want that military contract.”

“If you want that CopyOven.”

“Endless ginger biscuits.”

She grinned in the starlight and I closed my eyes, our hands still together as we fell asleep.

© 2022 Louise Hughes

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News