"Trees." Aidan O'Malley repeated, a note of sheer disbelief in her voice.

"Little trees, Cap'n," Kevin assured her, "'bout so high," he measured a yard or so above the galley/salon deck. "Thirty of them. Should fit nicely into the back hold."

Aidan shook her head, still bemused. "All the way to Londinium?"

"That's right. Three thousand credits for 27 days and another six hundred for fuel costs. It's a great commission, Cap'n."

But Aidan had been in business too long not to check for catches. "Clearances? port fees? import tax?"

"The customer'll take care of all that - it's in the contract, ma'am." Kevin tapped a finger on the sheet of digital paper lying between them.

Aidan slid it closer to have another look at the terms. Jaime said: "Tell me again why he doesn't just ship his plants by liner?"

Kevin heaved a sigh, patience fraying. Sweetest deal he'd ever found and all anybody could do was criticize! "Last time he did that the plants died. he wants 'em to get personal attention from somebody who knows gardening - which is where the Bhikkhu comes in." he nodded towards the fourth person at the table.

"Cinnamon myrrh trees are not particularly delicate," Brother Chow, cook and itinerate Monk, put in gently, "I anticipate no problems."

"And he made a helluva impression on Mr. Van Gulik," Kevin added beaming the good brother a smile, "that's what sealed the deal."

"It's not sealed yet." Aidan corrected him. She looked at her first mate; "This job'll take us right into the heart of the Alliance - will that be a problem for you and Yelena, Jaime?"

He smiled crookedly. "Doubt it. Core Bureaucrats probably never even heard of Rim-world guerillas like us." he thought a moment. "Might be a good idea to keep Yelena on the boat though."

"I already thought of that." Aidan said dryly. She picked up the stylus and scribbled her signature in the box. "Kevin, tell your Londinium gentleman he's got a deal."

The barker breathed out a sigh of relief.

Hotaru was a Firefly 03, old and somewhat battered but tough as nails, a classic in her way. Jaime Santos brought her down gentle as an alighting butterfly on a sweep of lime green lawn surrounded by groves of sweetly scented trees with elegantly rustic houses tucked in and among them. Fancible little colonies like this, full of wealthy dilletants, were common as dirt on Paquin, a border world doing its level best to measure up to Core standards of culture and luxury. Hotaru stuck out like a sore thumb in such refined surroundings.

Mr. Van Gulik, plump, graying and expensively dressed in what he no doubt considered country casual clothes, was waiting beside the rows of small, potted saplings. His eyes widened a little as Aidan came down the cargo ramp. Whatever he'd been expecting in the way of transport captains this brisk, handsome woman with the well coiffed red hair and neatly pressed uniform was not it.

"Aidan O'Malley." she said crisply, offering a firm handshake. "I take it this is the cargo?"

"Martin Van Gulik." he responded. "And yes it is." he had a couple pair of husky youngsters in overalls standing by. At his nod they began carrying the little trees into the ship. Chow was on hand to show where they were to be set.

Following the first lot inside Van Gulik cast a curious glance at the wooden crates dotting the main hold. Aidan saw no reason not to enlighten him. "Naught but some pretties from our home town. Folk there make 'em during the long winter evenings and we sell 'em to souvenir shops and the like."

To her surprise the customer looked interested. "Hand crafts you mean?"

"Lace, embroidered this and thats, painted china and the like." she agreed. "We have some samples up in the living quarters."

The tea set laid out on the corner of the eating bar was pale green painted with sprigs of blossoming plum and cherry. Van Gulik examined the lace place mats, the big rag rug on the deck, the colorful quilt thrown over the futon and the embroidered covers of the sitting cushions with real appreciation.

"Nice, very nice. You know, Captain you could make a pretty penny selling this on Londinium."

Her eyebrows rose and knit dubiously as she poured the tea. "Kind of plain and homely for Core taste surely?"

He shook his head, taking a rice biscuit from the plate at his elbow. "Not at all. Hand crafted ornaments are very fashionable just now - and cost the earth I might add."

"Well I never say no to an honest profit." Aidan said. "And they can always use cash money back home."

"Which is?"

"Kerry." she answered readily. "It's a moon of Hera. The village is called Hotaru no Sato."

"Ah. So you named the ship for your home town?"

"Not exactly. 'Hotaru' means 'firefly' in the Japanese tongue - that and Gaelic is what we talk at home - village is called 'Home of the Fireflies' so when I bought myself a Firefly -" she shrugged.

"I see." Hera and her moons had been a major theater during the War - but Van Gulik had spent enough time in the Outer Worlds to know better than to raise that topic. Instead he shifted the subject back to business. "I'm shipping out on the Gloria Regina in two days meaning I'll be home a week or so before Hotaru arrives. You'll land near my estate, Manydowns, I'll give you the co-ordinates -" he caught her expression and smiled both wryly and reassuringly. "Don't worry, Captain. With a week's lead I'll have plenty of time sort through the red tape. I promise all will be in order when you make planetfall."

Mr. Van Gulik must have quite a lot of pull in the right places to be so sure of that, Aidan reflected. Of course an 'estate' on Londinium in addition to his 'cottage' here on Paquin meant plenty of money, and cash equals influence as everybody knows.

"That will be satisfactory." she said equably.

The twins, Hotaru's mechanic and medic, were waiting on the dock when she slid back into her slip. Hikaru O'Hara staggered aboard, his crest of unruly brown hair barely showing above a large, awkwardly shaped plastic box with a smaller one wrapped in paper balanced on top.

Aidan eyed him, mouth drooping. "And what, may I ask, is all that?"

"Just some things I picked up in the local junk shops." Hikaru plunked his plunder down on the deck and started pulling bits and pieces from the big box. "See spare couplings - hardly worn - brand new gaskets, some shaped plating -"

Aidan interrupted. "How much?"

He straightened, hazel eyes a little guilty and a little pleading; "sixteen platinum. But they're all things we can use, Aunt Aidan!"

Her eyebrows shot up then she pulled them down and sighed. "I guess it's all right - this time. But I'm not made of money, Hikaru. And it's 'Captain' not 'Aunt'."

"Yes'm, sorry Captain." the boy bent to put his prizes back in their box and found the paper wrapped package. "Oh, I almost forgot: this is for you Jaime."

The mate took it, turning it over and studying the address and postmarks with a faint frown.

Aidan turned to Hikaru's twin sister. "Been singing for your supper again, Kiku-ko?" she asked, deducing as much from her medic's Sunday best; a swirly pleated silk skirt and tightly sashed kimono jacket, and the harp case slung over her back.

Kikuno nodded. She was a sparkling, more than pretty creature, capable of brightening any surroundings with big, tilted golden hazel eyes that matched her short, somewhat whispy hair. Her voice was golden too, and surprisingly big and full for such a little thing. She pulled a small but heavy bag from a pocket and displayed it proudly.: "Ninety-eight silver bits."

"And none spent?" Aidan asked indulgently.

"I'm saving against a rainy day." the medic answered.

The Captain smiled wryly. "I can guarantee plenty of those."

"What happened to Yelena?" Jaime asked, more than a hint of worry in his voice.

The twins exchanged an uneasy look. "She said she'd meet us back here." Hikaru admitted.

"Two hours ago." added Kiku.

Aidan closed her eyes. Jaime winced. The twins looked acutely unhappy.

"We couldn't stop her." the boy said defensively.

"Of course not." Jaime soothed, turned to Aidan "I'll find her."

"Try the cells." she said dryly.

Jaime set out with Kevin. If Yelena'd fallen foul of the law - again - the younger man's Alliance vet status would help a lot in getting her out. Browncoats were not popular on Paquin.

They strode purposefully down the kind of street you'll find on the dockfront of any world; tawdry honky-tonks flashing their colored lights, 'souvenir' shops full of overpriced junk, clothiers, liquor and gun stores, brothels and bars. These last came in all sizes, with a many splendored variety of names and decors, but all were rundown, disreputable and well begrimed from long hard use. The street was crowded with rough types; freighter crews hitting dirt, whores and hawkers selling their wares; barkers, touts and fences; mercs, pickpockets, coshers and con-artistes. But Jaime's size and bearing - and maybe his brown coat - opened a way for him and his skinny, redheaded companion.

"Wonder what trouble our little girl's gotten into now." Kevin mused.

"She might not be in trouble." the mate said, standing up for his fellow Independent, though with a notable lack of conviction. "Maybe she just lost track of the time."

"Sure, sure. She popped into the local library and got caught up in a novel." Kevin's voice fairly dripped sarcasm. "Come off it, Jaime. Yelena on the loose on a pro-Uni world equals trouble. The only question is how bad and has she been caught?"

Jaime folded his lips into a grim line. "Just keep your eyes open. She could be anywhere along here."

"Let us hope." Kevin answered.

They continued on in tense silence, each craning his neck searching for a slim, dark young woman in a brown coat.

Suddenly the window field of a dive a few feet ahead rippled blue as two bodies came hurtling through, one after another, to land with sickening grunches on the pavement. Such happenings were far from uncommon and most passersby just eddied round and continued on their way. Not the men from Hotaru.

Jaime came to a full stop and looked at Kevin.

Kevin looked back. "Found her."