They played cat and mouse through the suburban hills outside of the Baltimore Collective. The Citystate was no longer neutral. Nathan’s faction was taking full advantage the chaos of regime change to infiltrate the area and gather intelligence.

Radical transhuman elements seized B-Coll sentience nodes and were tapped into the violent subconscious that the Machine Mind wasn’t yet able to reclaim. The meatbots holding B-Coll were using the nodes to think for an entire battalion of killer biped drones. Partisans were getting mowed down like grass because of it.

The militant Transhumans had already incinerated the thirty-thousand-member City Council immediately after capturing the central spire. Transhuman secret police were engaged in a major purge of dissidents. General Martinez wanted those nodes captured while the distraction of the purges was still in play. Nathan wanted the nodes destroyed along with any Militant transhuman he came across. Killing was his own personal mission.

At two-thousand feet high, and more than a mile across, the Baltimore Harbor Spires already dominated the sky over the neighborhood once called Druid Hill Park. The hills that gave the neighborhood its name were merely five-hundred feet above sea level. The foundations of the central spire alone sank at least at least as far beneath the Chesapeake bay. The forty million souls who teemed in that human hive must have looked down at the random patchwork of unincorporated Baltimore as a primitive wilderness. Thinking that would have made them right. The suburban expanse was the perfect place for Nathan and his Unit to hide. Six million non-citizens eking out a living in the suburbs provided many friends and allies useful to The Cause.

The main problem was the meatbots — heavily enhanced Transhuman soldiers trained to stalk and hunt down operatives just like Nathan, Sean and his Unit. To the locals, Nathan and Sean stood out. But with forged ID chips and second-hand clothes over their light recon armor, they looked like part of the native fauna to the occupying Transhumans.

They had to travel light, and that meant light arms. The most effective weapons would get them caught. Lightly armored targets were no problem. The railguns built into the sleeves of their armor shot 3mm doped ceramic pellets at six-thousand feet per second, but using that capacity would drain capacitors quickly and would merely tickle a fully-armored meatbot.

The EM signals from railgun discharges would also be the dog whistle that would bring every nearby transhuman soldier to their position. High technology was heavily regulated for non-citizens. The weapons Sean and Nathan carried were only intended to let them fall back to their weapons cache or survive until their backup team arrived. If they got caught, though, that likely would not happen. Both Sean and Nathan knew that the weapons they carried were just to make them feel better about at least shooting back before they died.

Sean had some intel on an undocumented storm drain line that drug smugglers and power thieves used. If they found it, they would have access to the Spire data lines. That meant foolproof ID and physical access to the hive itself. They were close to finding the enterprising souls who knew where the line was. Sean had his contact convinced they were black market VR coders with highly addictive programs to trade.

The townhouse was the only place occupied for three blocks. Most of the neighborhood was marked off limits by the ineffective local government. Nathan didn’t like it. Hiding in crowds was far safer. He felt exposed here. They had to use their naked eyes to scan the block for suspicious activity. Using recon armor was already pushing it. The suit’s shielding was reliably transparent to tech scans, but even using something as simple as multiband scanner contact lenses would likely trigger detection.

Sean checked in to their backup team with an encrypted micro radio burst. That was risky, but backup had to know where they were. They weren’t suicidal. Mounting the white marble steps to the rowhouse informed their noses that this was it. Even behind a closed door, the burning of old-school drugs was evident. The people inside were practiced at subverting rules and laws — Nathan’s kind of people.

The door opened before Sean could knock. Nathan kept his wrist bent so that he could raise his arm fast enough for a headshot should the man behind the cracked door make the wrong move.

“Dennis,” Sean said. His face was deadly serious as was the face that appeared in the narrow opening to the subversive world revolving inside. “I have what you’re looking for.”

“Who’s the grinder?” Dennis said with suspicion behind his hooded, bloodshot eyes.

“My partner. Harmless.”

“Don’t look harmless. Looks like a grinder. Why you bring him?”

“Safety. Nobody comes here alone. Everybody knows that.”

Dennis opened the door. Moldy wallpaper from the previous century hung in ribbons from the walls. Nathan and Sean stepped around a hole in the wooden floor that seemed to have no bottom but sent out a breath of damp earth from its bowels.

A living room off to the right was carpeted in drugged bodies, some active, others passed out. Lighters occasionally flared as people smoked whatever substances the house provided. Nathan guessed synthesized coke and genuine marijuana. He wondered why people still scarred their lungs when high-precision pharmaceuticals were so readily available of the sort that the recon suits dispensed. The drugs coursing through Nathan’s veins didn’t produce stupor but made him hyper-aware.

That’s why he noticed one of the bodies cradled a Transhuman weapon. Nathan reached across the hole in the floor and grabbed Dennis by the throat, He crushed the windpipe as he pulled forward. Dennis fell through the floor and made no further sound. In the same motion, Nathan sprayed the room with pellets. Most of the drugged people didn’t scream as the projectiles shredded their hides. The undercover Transhuman didn’t scream either. Nathan scored a headshot and the operative went down. There would be more

Sean didn’t have to ask. He fired into the room also until there was no more movement. The smell of ozone from the high-voltage discharge of their railguns mixed with the scent of blood, excrement, drugs and rot. This place was death, and they’d only just arrived. It was time to leave. Their mission failed. Nathan followed Sean down the hall to a railroad kitchen. They could already hear pounding feet on the street outside.

The back door burst open. Sean raised both arms, bent his wrists and opened up with all four barrels. Blue flames shot past his arms and electricity arced out from his clothes, etching black lines on the kitchen wall. The moldy wallpaper dried instantly and burned. They stepped over the headless transhuman patrolman and onto a back porch.

A fully-armored three-unit Transhuman patrol waited for them. They both expended the rest of their ammunition making the patrol dive for cover, blasting most of the rotten wood of the porch out into the back yard. As they turned back into the house, they heard the scream of unsilenced micro-turbofans. It appeared their ambush also included a hopper. But why wasn’t it silenced?

When the sound of high caliber railguns sounded, Sean thought they were both dead. He let his thoughts be known with a stream of curses. But they lived. The engines screamed louder and rose above the house. More railgun fire belched into the street outside. Nathan and Sean paused in the midst of panicked flight and exchanged comical looks of surprise. Someone broke radio protocol.

“It’s me, you idiots! Come out!” Polly admonished them from the stolen hopper. “We don’t have much time!”

What remained of the armored patrol was scattered across the street and dripping from the faces of the townhouses. It looked as if a bratty child had dismembered her action figures and tossed their limbs around a bloody playroom. Polly set the single-seat hopper down in the street and Sean and Nathan hugged the skids for dear life as Polly took off again. Nathan made a note to ask Polly when she learned to fly.