The cat flexed. Fur and skin peeled back to expose the raw salmon-colored muscles, studded with stiff wires to the steel exoframe. The claws on its right paw popped, and in response the two-inch steel blades slid from their sockets and locked in place. The critter mewled, straining against the harness.
"See?" Benji said. "Works okay. Gimme a day, day and a half."
"The fight's tonight, Benito." Mac said, keeping his distance. "You know that."
The fights. Mac was getting these little glowing lines - auras, or whatever they called them - around his peripheral vision now whenever he got stressed. That happened when you did too much, and he had definitely been doing too much lately. Anything, to keep the warm haze of jovial normality as he glad-handed everybody at the fights - the punters, the money, the technicians, the scary old mob ladies in their two-thousand dollar suits and gold cigarette lighters. Mac was one of the organizers. That was his job. Smile, make everybody happy, even when you're taking their money.
"Look, all this work is custom. I can't do the exoskeleton and the armor and the conditioning...and you want a good fight, you need all three." Benji had been a find. Medical school dropout, expired student visa, a couple bad habits which were actually a bit of a plus in this line of work. Mac had found him fitting a little leather glove studded with salvaged scissor blades to a stray and recognized talent.
Mac breathed through his mouth, trying to keep calm, tried to ignore the bright rings around his vision. He matched eyes with the cat, buried inside the exoframe. It's slit pupils were wide and dilated. A shunt into its jugular was feeding it a steady drip of kitty morphine and fuck knows what else. Benji didn't mind it when they screamed, but Mac didn't like it. Liked it even less when the wires were plugged into brain, and everything that made it a cat just...stopped. When it went from being an animal to a meat computer, driving fifty pounds of crude warframe.
"What if we left off the armor?" Mac suggested. "The exposed look might be good. Let the punters see what's in there, what's moving. Some of 'em don't even think there's real cats in there."
"All the lines are exposed," Benji shook his head. "Fight would be over too quick, one good line gets taken out."
Mad digested this. "I know a guy. Does chainmail. Titanium rings. That would be quicker, right? You can use the armor mounting points, wrap it up good. Lighter than plate, too, so it'll be faster."
Benji's eyes grew wide behind his glasses, and Mac instinctively looked at his pupils, and wondered what his partner was on. "Yeah...yeah! That would look badass!" He stared down at the cat, ran a hand along a strip of bare skin shaved on its stomach. "Would you like that, puss? Gonna need to do two layers around your vitals, just in case..." The cat flexed, instinctively, claws swiping at the air, to restricted right now to tear Ben's face off.
Mac left him to it. He had to go talk to his guy about the mail.