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Neneng didn't really like stealing, but a job was a job and it put food on the table. And this one was a doozy. All she had to do was grab the package. It was easy money.

But that was what was bothering her. This job was almost too easy. After she and Boyet were briefed, she had waited for further instructions form Don Ramon but none was forthcoming.

"Ano, tanga ka ba (are you stupid or something)?" her boss had asked irritably. "Are you just gonna stand there and stare at me the whole day, or do I need to give the instructions to you but slower this time?"

Neneng narrowed her eyes at the man. He was fat and constantly smelled of stale sweat and vinegar which never failed to make her gag if she got too near him.  She detested him, and if her life didn't depend on him she would have slit his throat a long time ago.

"There's usually more to a job than just grab and go," she said. "Is he heavily armed? Does he have bodyguards? What? I like to be prepared."

Don Ramon sighed. "None whatsoever. Just grab the damn package and make sure it gets to me. All you need are your legs, your wits and your biotics. I gave this to you 'coz its easy, I know you'll get the job done, and I like you." The way he said that last bit made Neneng shiver with disgust. "Do you want me to give this to someone else? Because I can give this to Finch and he can collect the 5000 credits-"

"Finch? That cono ("rich kid")?" Neneng scoffed. "He's a Makati boy! He can't find his ass in Quiapo even if he bent over. I just wanted to make sure I got all bases covered, boss."

"You just did, now get out of here."

She and Boyet shared a look before finally leaving.  They made their way out of the dingy apartment building that was the Tenth Street Reds hideout in Maynila. It looked  derelict but anyone who knew the Reds knew that it was all for show.  Inside the place was as modernly equipped as any Alliance ship, and it was fortified to the brim. Anyone stupid enough to storm the place would get his head blown off at the door.

"I have a bad feeling about this, 'dong (litte boy)," Neneng said as they made their way down the busy downtown streets.

Boyet grimaced at the name.  "Don't call me that," he said.  "I'm not a little boy, dammit." 

Neneng chuckled.  "You might be taller than me now but you're still my little boy." She ruffled his hair.

"Bwiset (damn you)," he said, pretending to be annoyed, but he was grinning.

Boyet came into the Reds at a fairly young age.  Don Ramon had not wanted him, but Neneng, barely a year recruited herself, had seen some potential in the boy and begged Ramon to take him in.  Fortunately he was a natural marksman so Ramon agreed, putting Boyet in her care.  Thus he came to be known as her little boy. Anyone who saw them thought they actually were brother and sister. Their rapport was such, and they often annoyed each other with banter. 

"I feel like Ramon wasn't telling us everything, Neneng continued.

Boyet chuckled "He never does! We're just his runners.  Besides, a job is a job. We just have to be extra careful, alright?  Look sharp.  We're here." Boyet made the sign of the cross, a habit borne of ancient traditions of bygone eras.  Neneng knew he was brought up religious and he did that a lot, especially during missions.  She just didn't understand the logic behind it. Did you really earn "god's" protection by doing that?

The grab was to take place in Quiapo square, right after the mass. Quaipo Church,  right off the square,  was one of the few churches on Earth that still celebrated the Holy Mass in this day and age.  Filipinos were one of the last humans to stubbornly cling to their religion, and even though church didn't draw followers like it used to, it attracted curious visitors from aliens and other non-religious human races alike. Today had drawn an exceptionally large crowd.  It was Good Friday and the curious milled about to see the elaborate pageantry that was Christ's death. Bunting was strung all over the square and pictures depicting Jesus in his last hours were put up around the square.

Their mark was supposed to be some poor shmuck from the Citadel. He had a package and was going to deliver it to  someone from the Chinese cartel right out there in public using the crowd as cover.

She spotted him right away. His C-sec uniform was a dead giveaway. Gago (idiot) didn't even bother to change clothes.

He was indeed holding an inconspicuous package wrapped up in brown paper. It wasn't hard to see he was shifty, nervous. Neneng didn't have to wonder what was in the package, given who it was for.  It was almost always drugs. She hated running drugs. It was always such a big deal with the local police.  If you much as whispered the words "red dust" in public, the cops would be on your ass in in instant.

The Easter celebration was coming to a close and she didn't want to wait for the cops or the cartel to show up. She gave Boyet the signal and they went their separate ways into the crowd and approached their unwitting target. Boyet came from the back and she from the front. 

The plan was simple. Boyet would distract him with an accidental shove, Neneng would immobilize him with her biotics.  They'd slip the package out of his hands and disappear right back into the crowd.

It was the perfect plan and it had almost worked.  With their mark immobilized, all they had to do was take the package and walk away, but when Neneng looked over at Boyet his eyes were wide with alarm. He was had spotted something behind her.

"Neng," fear quivering in his voice "takbo (run)!"

She didn't need to be told twice. She grabbed the package and ran for it.

"Hoy! Tumigil ka! (Hey! Stop!)" The someone behind her said, trying to grab her, but she was quick. She ran like lighting, dodging the crowd.  There were a few screams and angry shouts as her pursuer ran into the throng after her.  She got a few feet away before she barely dodged a kinetic barrier that suddenly sprang up in front of her.

Two can play at that game, she though, summoning her own barrier behind her and hearing the satisfying thud of something heavy hitting it at full force.

She made a dash for the nearest alley, then turned into another, then another that would lead her into the main street where she could finally disappear into the crowd, but as she rounded the corner she smashed into a kinetic barrier and fell on her ass. She was lucky her reflexes were lightning quick and she had time to raise her arms and lessen the impact. She would have suffered a broken nose if she hadn't. 

"Well, well. Look what we have here."

Neneng fought through the haze of pain dealt by the impact to her elbow to focus on the speaker.  She looked up at the figure standing over her, and quailed when she saw his armor.  It was a merc.  More specifically, a Blue Suns merc.  There was a rumor going around that the cartel had hired them.  Looked like the rumors were true after all. 

"You have something of ours, little girl."  The Merc was human, big and stocky.  He was now directly above her, grinning at her menacingly.

"Finders keepers," she said as defiantly as she could.

"We were supposed to make sure the pickup went smoothly.  You interfered.  Now, if I don’t get back what belongs to the Chinese, I don’t get paid. And when I don't get paid I get angry." The man lifted his large foot and used it to apply pressure to Neneng's neck.  "And when I get angry, well…" He pressed down harder with his foot and Neneng's breathing constricted drastically.  She didn't want to give them the satisfaction of seeing her squirm, but panic had gripped her and she tried to remove the armored foot to no avail.

"I'm going  to go easy on you. I'll let you live if you give me what you stole." The man pressed down a bit more, and just before Neneng thought she was going to pass out, he removed his foot and she coughed and sputtered.

"Hand it over," the man said, hand held out, waiting for the package.

"Hindi mo 'ko kayang takutin, (You can’t scare me)," she rasped, grasping her aching throat.

The man laughed and raised his gun to her head. "You got balls, kid, but I don’t have the patience  If you're going to be stubborn about it I might as well just fucking shoot you."

She had no doubt the man would do it, too.  She watched his trigger finger carefully. She was about to throw him when footsteps came running down the alley.

"Stop!" A voice cried out. It was Boyet.  He had his gun out and was pointing it at the merc, who didn’t seem the least bit worried. He didn't even glance over.

Of course not, she thought.  He was in armor.  He had shields.  In contrast Boyet had nothing but  a secondhand shield generator that probably wouldn’t last through half the man's clip. 

"I'll shoot your fucking head off," Boyet said, he was trying to sound tough but his nervousness still came through loud and clear in the way his voice squeaked. "Slide your gun over and back off slowly."

Neneng wanted to tell him to get the hell out but the effort left her coughing. 

"Or what, kid?" the merc asked.  He still didn't turn to look at Boyet.  His eyes, and gun, were trained on Neneng.

"Or I'll tear your fucking h-"

Two loud gunshots reverberated through the narrow alley.  Neneng's hands flew from her throat to her ears.  It happened too fast.  She was watching the man, waiting for him to turn away even slightly so she could throw him with her biotics before she got shot. She had hoped Boyet's presence would give her that opportunity, but the man had quick hands and a wicked aim. He swung his gun around to Boyet's direction and fired at him without even taking his eyes off her.  There was a gaping hole in Boyet's chest when he fell to the ground.

First came the shock of seeing her friend's bloody body lying just a few feet away.  He was still gasping, bloody froth bubbling from his mouth and nose.

Then the anger came, steadily  building up, overtaking every other emotion she felt. She saw the man turn to Boyet, who was makig a pathetic attempt to raise his gun. The merc sneered at him and took aim again, this time at his head. Rage filled Neneng at the man's temerity. She couldn't scream so she tried to get up to get his attention away from her friend. As she did the package fell from her jacket pocket. It was hefty enough and, without thinking much, she grabbed it and  lobbed it at the merc as hard as she could. It hit him square in the head with a force that it exploded in a shower of red sand.  The man was taken by surprise and finally turned away from Boyet.  He was momentarily blinded, coughing as the red substance assaulted his sight and breathing. Neneng used that as an opportunity to attack.  She took her fury and used it to charge her biotic throw.  It hit the  man with such a force and slammed him against the alley wall so hard it made him drop his weapon.

She hastily made a grab for it and pointed it at him.

He was literally red all over, covered in sand and blood that was running from his nose and head. His shield was flickering, but he still didn't seem perturbed. In fact, grinned at her, teeth all bloody.  "You have balls but don't have the guts," the man said. 

Neneng had never killed anyone before.  She had injured a lot of people but never killed.

Until now.

Her mind was still reeling from seeing Boyet so badly wounded. He was her charge, her brother of the streets, and that bastard shot him. Her anger was making her biotics flare up.  She was running on pure adrenalin.  She shot him with stasis.  His shields finally gave out at the impact and then she open fired into his chest at point blank range.  Even when half his armor caved in she did not stop until she spent every bullet in the clip. With one final draw of her biotics, she threw the merc's body down the alley as far away from her as possible, and it fell with a heavy crash meters away.

The sound seemed to snap her out of her rage and she ran to Boyet and cradled his body in her arms.  He looked terrible, his breath coming in gurgling gasps.

"Hang in there 'dong (little boy). I'll get help."

He shook his head. "Umalis ka na (Get yourself out of here now)..."

"No! I won't leave you!"

 "Neng, I....can't...I'm d-done."

"No you're not, you little shit. Don't die. That's an order!"

Boyet managed a smile. "You were a-always such a b-bitch."

Neneng made a sound that was between a sob and a laugh. She needed to keep it together for him, but it was getting harder by the second, seeing him like this. "You're strong. You can see this through."

Boyet shook his head again. "...tired."

"Stay with me Boyet, please." Against her will, her tears came. They blurred her vision and she wiped them away furiously.

"D-don't cry," Boyet whispered. "I'm fine. The L-Lord is my sh-shepheard I shall not w-w-want. H-he maketh m-me to l-lie in-"

"Shut up," Neneng interrupted. "Shut up, shut up, shut up. Stop praying, gago (idiot)." She was crying uncontrollably now

"In green p-pastures. He l-l-leadeth me beside st-still waters. He res- h-he restoreth my...my..." Boyet made one last gasp before finally falling limp in Neneng's arms. She grasped him tightly, as sobs wracked her body.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me," she continued, when she got herself under control. She wasn't religious but she knew that prayer.  It was the only one she remembered, out of the many that that Boyet tried to teach her because, in a way, it gave her comfort. She closed Boyet's unseeing eyes and hugged him one last time. She hoped it had given him comfort too.

*** 

The police were alerted to the commotion in the square and to the multiple gunshots in the alley. Neneng heard the sirens closing in momentarily. She didn't want to leave Boyet behind in that dirty alley but she had no choice. She already had a rap sheet, and getting caught with her prints on the murder weapon and a shitload of drugs would only add to her problems. Besides, most of the police were paid by either the Reds, or the Chinese, and given her current situation she doubted she was still on Don Ramon's good side.

She had messed up her job. The package was apparently worth a fortune and she fucking threw it at the merc. It didn't take a genius to figure out she cost Don Ramon a lot. He would have her head for that. Either that or he'd turn her over to the Chinese himself just to appease them.

Neneng decided the best thing for her to do was to disappear. So with nothing but the clothes on her back and Boyet's gun in her pocket, she set out.

The Reds base was in Quiapo, but that didn't mean they were confined to that area. They had grown over the years and had many cells around the Metro. Neneng avoided the areas she knew the Reds dominated. She wandered the streets for days, keeping herself as inconspicuous as possible. She felt alone.  She was alone. Being affiliated with the Reds was nothing but protection form other gangs. It wasn't a family.  Only Boyet was the closest thing in her life she had to family and he was gone. 

She cried again at the memory of her friend. He was a good kid. He didn't deserve to go the way he did. 

Her grief made her careless, and she bumped into someone on the street. She was about to apologize when she was grabbed and slammed on the wall of a nearby building.

Neneng cursed herself. Her instincts kicked in in an instant and she sized up her assailant. He was about her age, dark brown hair, fair complexion. His left arm was across her throat, pinning her to the wall. He had a shiteating grin on his face. When Neneng recognized who it was her stomach turned.

Putang inang cono (motherfucking cono)!

"Finch, what the hell!"

"I heard you messed up the easiest job in the world, bruha (witch)." Neneng felt cold steel on her neck and she started to panic just a little. Boyet's gun was tucked in the waistband at her back but both her hands were around Finch's arm that was pinning her down. She'd be dead in seconds if she made a move for the gun. Also, he brought backup.  There were five of his friends behind him, all of them sneering.

"I also heard you took down a Blue Suns merc all by yourself," Finch continued. "The boss was impressed and would have let your failure slide.  Too bad you just had to run away. But then again, good for me." He leaned closer to her. "I get to bring you in and collect the bounty."

She knew he would not stop at anything to get her  Finch had it in for her the moment she was recruited into the Reds.  Before she came along Finch was Ramon's golden boy, ruthless, cunning charming.  The Reds didn’t have anyone with formidable biotics until she came along and became Ramon's top gun.  Since then he took a back seat and he hated it. Neneng knew he had been wanting to take her down a peg.  This time he had an opportunity to take her down for good.

Neneng charged her biotic shields but was suddenly hit with an energy drain by one if Finch's tech companions

"I'm not stupid, Neng," Finch chucked.  "I came prepared."

She started to panic.  She didn't know if she was going to get out of this alive.

She heard Finch cock his gun.  "Say your prayers," he said.

Neneng closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable. She'd be seeing Boyet soon. The lord is my-

But instead of a bang, there was a voice. "Put the gun down, kid."

There was a pause. Neneng still had her eyes shut.  The gun would go off any second, she knew.  He would finish her off before whoever that was would save her.

"Fucking shit!" It was one of the others standing around.  She felt the guy tap Finch. She felt him move and curse under his breath.

She was utterly surprised when Finch's grip on her wavered, then totally disappeared.  She fell to the ground as she heard them run off down the street.

"I'll see you soon, Neng!" she heard Finch shout.

She heard footsteps approaching her from the direction the voice came.  It stopped right in front of her.

"Hey, are you alright?"

Neneng opened her eyes slowly, slightly afraid of what she might find.  What would make the guys run except cops?  Or the Blue Suns?

The first thing she saw were the boots.  Heavy duty, but very clean.  Her eyes traveled up some more and her heart quailed at seeing a shotgun and the Alliance military uniform. Steeling herself, she looked the person in the eye ready to run.

It was a woman.  She was smiling at her.  "Are you ok?" she asked again.  "Those guys didn't hurt you, did they?"

"I would have hurt them more if they did anything stupid," she said, using bravado to mask how utterly terrified she had been just moments before knowing she was moments away from death.

The woman chuckled as she stood up, and held out her hand to help Neneng up.  "Did you really take on a Blue Suns merc all by yourself?"

Neneng just shrugged.

"You got spunk, kid.  I like it. Are your parents around?"

Alarm bells went off in Neneng's head and she tried to keep a straight face, but the woman seemed to see right through her and just nodded.

"I see, welll," she handed Neneng  a flyer from the stack she was apparently carrying. "You look like a someone who could hold their own.  Have you ever thought about joining the Alliance?"

Neneng blinked. "What?"

"Alliance military, kid.  It's better than whatever mess you got yourself into.  We could use people like you."

Neneng looked at the flyer.  It had details for military recruitment.  She could be shipped off to Alliance training in a few days if she joined up.  If there was good opportunity to hide from the Reds and the Suns and the cops, this was it

"What's your name, kid?"

"Neneng Lu-" she paused.  She could run but she couldn’t use her real name.  Not with her rap sheet. She tried to think but her brain was still on the defensive.

The lord is my shepheard…

"Your name is Neneng Lu?"

"My name is Guadalupe Shepard," she said decisively.  "Neneng for short."

"Pretty name.  I hope to see you in training, Neneng.  You'll make  great soldier one day.  I just know it."