To understand Maryland politics these days, you literally need a map. Legislators carry them everywhere, unfurling them without warning in back hallways, in darkened restaurants, in public auditoriums. Maps have power to save or destroy careers, to shatter friendships, to possess minds.

"You'll be sitting in a committee hearing, listening to a speaker," says Del. Lucille Maurer, a Montgomery County Democrat, "and then you'll look around at your colleagues and they're all drawing little maps under their desks."

The maps are props in a high-stakes political drama that will reshape hundreds of careers and the state itself -- the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries to reflect population shifts. It is a process with huge implications for budgets, for programs, for voting rights, for everyone touched by state government. And, when defending their maps in public, politicians pay homage to all these concerns.

But in private, they talk mainly of one thing -- survival -- and nowhere do they talk of it more than here, in Baltimore, where eight legislators will lose their jobs in the reshuffling. If the lines are in the right place, one legislator is assured of reelection; another is consigned to oblivion. A curl here, a squiggle there, and the district is stocked with friendly voters, pared of hostile ones.

It is important to master map making, lest it master you.

"I haven't worked so hard on anything since they tried to put a prison in my district," said Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore) from behind a desk layered with 15 maps of his city, each with a different pattern of squiggles and curls. "The basic fact is that everyone is willing to stab everyone. All friendships go out the window."

This is certainly not what the Supreme Court had in mind in its landmark one-man, one-vote ruling of the 1960s. But it is happening nonetheless during this process known as reapportionment, and to learn how it works, the best starting point is Baltimore, scene of the fiercest reapportionment contest in the state.

The exercise began as soon as the 1980 census was published and gathered speed over the summer as a commission appointed by Gov. Harry Hughes toured the state, holding public hearings in every region, prompting hundreds of politicians and concerned citizens to draft maps of their own. The commission is to propose new legislative district lines for the whole state by the end of the month, and deliver its map to Hughes, who will send it on to the General Assembly in January -- possibly with revisions -- for still more bartering and, at last, a vote. It will become law in time for the 1982 elections.

Baltimore is the big loser in this process. A patchwork of blue collar and ethnic enclaves, of blight and revival, the old port city has shrunk by 120,000 residents since 1970, far more than other areas of the state. In political geography, this means it must forfeit two of its 11 legislative districts -- two senators and six delegates.

On the surface, the solution appears fairly straightforward: Cut the city into nine equal slices. But it is not that simple, since such an approach would pit several entrenched incumbents against each other. Well aware of the problem, most of Baltimore's 33 delegates and 11 senators have proposed maps, each protecting the person who drew it, doing violence to the districts of eight who didn't.

The fight has become so divisive that no map has yet won support from even half the delegation, and House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin recently asked Weisengoff -- a wily tactician who relishes political intrigue like an old cigar -- to shuttle between factions to help find a compromise.

Weisengoff can be spotted darting in and out of hearing rooms in Annapolis, huge maps rolled up under his arms, beckoning fellow legislators into anterooms to talk strategy, to line up support. "I'm safe," Weisengoff explains. "So my position is I want to help everyone I can . . . The rule of the game is: Save as many incumbents as possible without gerrymandering to the point that it's obvious."

Study the maps through his eyes and, after a while, the lines begin to speak for themselves.

"Now," he says, adjusting his glasses, unfurling the first map and studying it like a soldier plotting an invasion, "here's a plan that would knock out John Pica, Andy Burns, Bobby Hergenroeder, Frank Robey and John Carroll Byrnes and maybe even Ray Dypski, but nobody wants to hurt him because he's such a nice old fella." With each name, he points to the spot where the legislator lives, noting how the district lines bend or turn sharply around it.

Then he unveils a second one. "Now, this one gets Ann, Jim, Torrey, Dypski, Dietrich and McDonough." And a third: "This one gets Jack, but it saves Ann, Jim and Torrey." And a fourth: "This one saves Jack. He drew it himself."

Then there's the map drawn by Del. Anthony M. DiPietro Jr. As first drafted, it severed Del. Torrey Brown, a popular committee chairman, from the precincts making up his political base, Weisengoff recalls. Alerted to the problem, DiPietro redrew the map and resubmitted it. "But it was too outrageous. It looked like a drawing of Snoopy. It looked like it had ears, a nose, the whole bit.

"Now here's Jerry Curran's map," he goes on, spreading out the next one. "It gives Curran a safe white district forever . . . but it gives Joe Bonvegna the Inner Harbor. Joe doesn't want that area. It's crawling with ultra-liberals, which is the opposite of Joe. What does he want with people like that in his district?"

The maps keep coming for hours -- the black caucus map, the John Pica map, the Torrey Brown map, the first Jack Lapides map, the second Jack Lapides map, the map Mayor William Donald Schaefer likes, the concerned citizens' map, and so on until the desk is heaped with a foot-high stack.

Even a novice can learn to read between the lines, to see who gets sacrificed, who gets saved, to see how certain configurations recur on almost every map, a silent testament to Baltimore's political givens -- givens known to some as "the four corners and the four blacks."

In the city's four corner districts live its most entrenched white incumbents, including Cardin, two Senate committee chairmen (Harry McGuirk and Joseph Curran), Senate Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams, Bonvegna and Weisengoff. Virtually every map gives them the precincts they want -- at worst, the ones they need -- to ensure their reelection.

Closer to the center are the city's four predominantly black districts. Those, too, are protected in most maps, but by a different kind of power -- the courts, which forbid dilution of minority voting strength. Since Baltimore had four black districts in the 1970s, it must have at least four in the 1980s. And the two forfeited districts must be white districts, a situation that has kept race at the center of the reapportionment fight.

The issue reaches far beyond reapportionment, because the exodus to the suburbs in the last decade has flip-flopped Baltimore's racial composition -- from 54 percent white in the 1970s to 54 percent black today. It is only a matter of time, the politicians say, before blacks replace whites in many of the top elected posts.

Several white delegates, particularly some of the vulnerable ones who live outside "the four corners," have angrily floated mock proposals that they claim could result in the defeat of all black incumbents by gerrymandering their districts to include white precincts with histories of high turnouts.

Meanwhile, black leaders are arguing for five rather than four districts, but they, too, are divided among themselves. Creating five predominantly black districts would mean diluting the black vote in at least one of the present four, a prospect that has exacerbated historic rivalries between black leaders on Baltimore's east and west sides.

"Black politicians act the same as white politicians," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings of the black caucus. "To some extent, self-interest becomes paramount over what is perceived as the greater interest of the community. It's really too bad, because there's no more clear political interest for blacks than black representation."

Occasionally, concerned citizens wander into the reapportionment drama, and most claim to be appalled by what they find. Linda Eberhart, a fourth-grade reading teacher and neighborhood activist, told her story sadly, on a recent afternoon, seated on one of the tiny, blond wooden chairs in her classroom at Mount Royal Elementary School.

No political novice, she had campaigned in dozens of races -- from her Democratic Club to Congress -- and worked for a number of causes, including inner-city renovation, historic preservation and integration. Experience had taught her, she said, that victory goes to the side that works the hardest, whose cause is the most just.

And so, last spring, when word surfaced that her district, the 39th-- a mix of working class and gentrified neighborhoods, cultural attractions, historic landmarks, the Baltimore she values most -- was marked for destruction, she set out to try to rescue it.

"The middle-class people downtown need their elected officials," she said. "You've got to deal with the crime, the education, to keep them in the inner city. You just can't carve them up. It doesn't have to be white representation, it just has to be together."

So she and six others from the New Democratic Club began to study map making. They learned about the four corners and the four blacks, sending emissaries to most of them, stepping further and further into the substructure of city politics. They learned that they had to go beyond the legislators. There was also City Councilman Du Burns, head of a major, east side political organization; the president of Parks Sausage, biggest black-owned business in town; Mayor Schaefer, who was quietly working to help "pro-city" delegates. Inevitably, they found their way to Weisengoff.

Asked if she had ever been on a comparable Odyssey, Eberhart, 35, gulped, put her hand to her throat and exclaimed: "I'm a reading teacher!"

She started with some of the same tools she uses in the schoolhouse: a file box and a classroom projector. Soon, the box was filled with index cards, showing the number of registered voters, the number of blacks and the number of whites in each city precinct. She studied voting patterns -- precinct turnouts, how many whites voted for blacks in 1978, how many blacks voted for liberal whites. Then she charted population loss.

At first, other delegates said the 39th was doomed by geography -- the central-city district is the most convenient to use as a filler for others that lost population -- but Eberhart and others came up with three maps that could save it, while still meeting all the legal requirements: nine districts, all roughly equal in population, four of them predominantly black.

They then visited virtually every political boss in the city, and each time they hit a roadblock, they returned to the drawing board and tried again. At last, they obtained tacit support from more than half the House delegation -- a biracial mandate, which they expected would carry the day when the city delegates met late last month to vote on a map.

"It was a gorgeous map," Eberhart said, pulling out a plastic overlay with the map drawn on it. "It was wonderful."

But it went down to defeat. The support dissolved even before the meeting, as black delegates lined up in a prearranged coalition with whites from the northeastern corner for several key preliminary votes. The map that passed in the end -- by only one vote and with no blacks voting in favor -- dilutes black voting strength in the northeast. And as for the 39th, it is carved into seven pieces, leaving its incumbent legislators in political ruin.

Still, it is not over. The special commission is seeking a better compromise, to ensure smooth passage of the reapportionment map by the time it reaches the legislature next year. And since Cardin is on the commission, and Weisengoff has his ear, and Weisengoff is still shuttling around, there is hope for Eberhart's cause. But that, she says, offers little comfort.

"If I stay involved in politics, I'll be lucky," she said, looking wistfully across her classroom, past the king-size glossary of basic words (accurate--right, achieve--accomplish, abandon--leave), beyond the empty rows of little desks. "I started out thinking that people could make a difference. And now I don't. What makes the difference is the mayor picking up the phone, or some delegate saying, 'This is the way it's going to be.' And I think that's discouraging. Maybe six months from now I'll see it differently."