It took her only about 20 minutes to reach the southeast gate. And she had cut it back to a coast after all, as soon as she got into the clearing around the ecopolis. Here she had no problem seeing her way in the dusk and it was pleasant to greet the locals as they, too, were strolling back toward home through the gardens or the fields. Every ecopolis has its own charm and character that reflects the creativity of its inhabitants.

She also glanced up at the trains leaving and arriving at the south end of the foot. She wasn’t fascinated at all with the trains as such. They are everywhere, of course, but she always wants to see how many passengers there are on board, and whether any will look out and notice her pedaling along below. One train was headed out to H15 and another was swinging in from I14. She wondered if her cart might be coming in on that one.

The foot of H16 makes a relatively small print. It is located on stable bedrock about 150m from the riverbed on the far side to the west. This ecopolis only has 4 towers, but they are slightly broader with 6 dwellings per level on each tower instead of the usual 4. The foot itself has an extra top level that adds some more dwellings to increase the capacity. These lower dwellings are singles units for the current younger service group. The footprint is an oval approximately 200m wide and 300m long. The open space buffer surrounding it was about 14 sq. km.

Elisa found the travel dorms in the level below the service dwellings to be the usual. When she got there to check in, an elderly fellow was there to help her out.

“I suppose you’re gonna want a fancy suite like the last guy did, too, are ya?”

She knew the type well – just like her father. A jovial outgoing person with that understated ironic lilt in his voice. “But, of course,” she quipped. And she added to her verbal answer the biggest grin she could muster.

“Well, I thought so.” And with his retort, he suppressed the urge to grin back, but couldn’t hide the twinkle in his eyes, as he sensed the accommodating familiarity of her gesture.

“And I’m sure you have a really nice room for me, don’t you now? I’d hate to have to sleep on a cot in the commons, unless I really have to.” She put on a thick drawl as she said that to keep up the playful banter. Actually, though, she sometimes prefers the commons for the companionship and interaction with other travelers, but tonight she was more tired than sociable.

“Well, I could go ask that fella if he wants to share his fancy suite with you. It’s got a private hot-tub.” By now, he had broken into an unabashed smile. The allusion to the antiquated hot-tubs was a dead give away.

Continuing with the same phony drawl, she countered, “Now that is tempting, but not tonight, thank you very much. No, I don’t think so.”

This friendly banter was a special treat. Most dorms don’t allocate the stage 6 staff to assist the travelers. And you have to find your own way around – making do with the automated check-in. But this time the nicety of the human greeting was enhanced by the father incarnate she found here so far away from her own birthplace. The style of their conversation brought her back a few years. Anyone younger than she was would probably not even understand the humor. But most of all it warmed her heart to know how much it meant to him to have a purpose and the contact with the new and interesting people passing through. She was more than willing to oblige and indulge in his friendliness.

She noticed that her travel cart was already there in one of the stalls along the wall that were obviously designed to store them.

“So you came in from J12, huh?” He knew that from checking where her cart had come in from on the train. “That’s a pretty serious stretch there, coming over all those hills.”

“It’s not that bad really.”

“Well, I’m sure you’re in better shape than I am. But then you’ve probably been doing some serious biking ever since you were young, right?”

He was undoubtedly old enough to have grown up before the network of paths was flushed out enough to make biking the standard mode of travel for youth. Some 95% of all younger people now are such regular bikers, they could have easily managed the stretch Elisa had made that day – hills or none. She had limited her stretch only because she wanted to stop and rabbit hunt a few times along the way. In earlier years, she had frequently put 180 km days behind her with ease. And that didn’t even put her in the top echelon of the serious bikers. For Elisa, it is just the preferred method of travel. The trains are nice enough, but she prefers getting deeper into the open areas and closer to what she calls her “otherness”.

“So what’s your name?” she asked.

“It’s Willi.”

“That’s nice,” she said with a considerable amount of inflection to indicate surprise and delight. “I haven’t heard that name for quite a while, now.” It is a bit old-fashioned.

“I know. Us old guys, we’re a strange bunch.”

“Well, now, I’m not so sure I can agree with that. Actually…” and she leaned over towards him and lowered her voice almost to a whisper, “I think you’re plenty sweet.” And with that she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. By this time, she knew the old man would accept the risky gesture as an innocent compliment.

“Now, don’t you go getting all mushy on me.” He said this with such exaggeration and playfulness, and leaned away from her just slightly to show her the glow on his cheeks and the obvious pleasure it gave him. It was then that she noticed how lean and almost wiry he was.

“Seriously, though, you do look awfully steely for a guy your age.”

“Well, that comes from the blading. That’s what I have always preferred over biking.”

It wasn’t until a few days later that she would learn that this “old man” was really quite a phenomenon among the locals, having spent much of his life in the rinks. Almost every ecopolis has a concrete rink used mostly by the younger locals for blading and boarding. All of them have roll-ups, pool-heels, pyramids and various ramp styles – enough to facilitate any act of daring. There’s nothing more popular really. And it’s such a wonderful way to resolve the tension between emerging youth and their elders. The rinks are good places for the youngsters to hang out. They have their independence there. And they can explore their physical limits in a relatively safe way.

Willi was, however, a rarity. He was one of the few who didn’t “hang up his skates” (as he would have said) when he reached the age to serve his stage 2 stint. That’s when most people cut back on the more extreme sides of youth. And after their stint, they are more likely to indulge in more biking and wandering. But Willi had kept up his regular work-outs and was one of those mature men who showed up at the rinks regularly to inspire and coach the younger bladers. It’s people like Willi that provide the supervision that allows youngsters to attempt the more difficult and risky stunts in a safe manner, using the spotting equipment. This kept the number of injuries to a minimum. And, of course, Willi could show them a thing or two. At his age, he could still land a flawless double twister, even though these days he was normally only prone to attempt that in full padding. There are some things you have to concede to age.

“So, does that mean I might see you down at the rink tomorrow?” Little did she know what she was saying.

She wheeled her cart into her room. It was the small “economy-single” style, but that was plenty for her. There was the usual space for her cart which she unfolded immediately. The space was small and efficiently designed, but certainly not cramped. It even had a small window that looked out into the garden. “Perfect!” she thought. She took her bath kit out of the top drawer of the middle section and went right into the freshening cell. She plugged her tooth cleaner into the usual 9 volt outlet above the sink and cleaned her teeth thoroughly. She certainly wasn’t going to enjoy her dinner without getting the dust out of her teeth. Of course, it was clean dust, but all the same. The ecopolitan life-style might be minimalist in many respects but it certainly doesn’t have to be uncivilized. She finished up with a quick shower and combing her hair.

The cart had almost all clean clothes in it, since she had done her laundry at another dorm just 2 days before. She was quite happy to pick out a clean blouse hanging in the right-hand section without coming to the realization that it was the last one and she’d have to spend some time in the morning getting that taken care of again. In spite of the convenience offered at the dorms, Elisa is always anxious to get out on the path as soon as possible. That’s why she always keeps her cart crammed full of extra panties and things. Even one additional day without laundering is great. And usually she would cheat and wear the same blouse two or even three evenings in a row, if the weather permitted. She also tends to stretch her day-time biking wear as long as possible. But those habits always change, when she is traveling with a “special” partner.

After a mere 25 minutes of settling and getting freshened up, she headed down the hallway back to the kitchen. To her surprise, standing there in an apron was Willi. “We’ve got some root stew and polenta tonight, if you’re interested. Now, if you had been here yesterday, you could have gotten some chicken giblets with brussel sprouts sautéed in a Chablis sauce.”

“Well, the stew sounds just magnificent to me. I never have liked Chablis sauce anyway. But tell me, this isn’t part of your regular duty, is it?” Of course, she knew it wasn’t.

“You know, we’re quite flexible defining our duties around here. Sometimes, they’re just so darn pleasant, you just get carried away with yourself.”

She could tell there was something special about this place. She was almost beginning to think she’d like to come back here some time later and spend enough time to find out. But that would have to wait for another trip. In any case, Willi’s extended presence in the kitchen was another clear embodiment of the casual, stress-free ecopolitan life-style.

“This is a special treat not having to warm up my own meal,” she responded. Elisa is generally prone to saving her credits by not getting a meal served to her at one of the public locales. The standard travel-pack dinners anyone can obtain from the dispenser at the dorms are always fresh and wonderful, too. But tonight Willi was giving her the best of both worlds – and his companionship thrown in as an extra topping! As she glanced over at him stirring the pot one more time for good measure, she could somehow see herself doing much the same thing in another few years.

“So, tell me,” she continued, “does H16 have a good house wine?” This being in a wine-growing region, she wanted to get the full flavor of the local pleasures. “I thought I’d step out on the deck for a sip after dinner.” Of course, the wine was mostly an excuse to get a glimpse at the evening congregation of the locals on the deck. It was a balmy, dry evening and she was sure almost everyone would be out enjoying the cool night air and interacting in their peculiar ways. At any other ecopolis in the region at this time of year, it would be the same. People out enjoying themselves, each other and open air in the comfort and complete safety of their communal deck.

“We do have some good reds. Were you thinking of a red wine?”

“Actually, I was hoping there’d be a good cool white wine with this weather and after the ride today.”

“Yeah, well, we do have a decent white. And then, there’s another grigio-like wine from the Coyote Brush Flats. It’s not really a Grigio, but similar. They call it Green-Go. Now, I told them that was a stupid name, but they didn’t listen to me. Of course, it will cost you 2 credits, though.”

“Coyote Brush Flats?”

“Oh, that’s, ummmh, G15.”

“G15? That’s funny,” she mumbled.

But Willi paid no attention to her and went right on. “They only have a small winery there, enough to supply 3 or 4 of the surrounding poli. But their vintner is excellent. Really exceptional.”

“Sounds great to me.”

“Well, maybe I’ll just show you the way and make sure you find the right locale.” Of course, there was only one such locale and that was obvious, but that didn’t matter to Elisa. “And, if you’re really nice to me, maybe I’ll treat you to that Grigio.”

“That almost sounds like a proposition.”

“Only if you want it to be.”

And they both started laughing.

Elisa hadn’t felt like this for a long time. Here she was debating with herself for the 2nd time in one day whether she might be falling for some guy. Of course, it was quite superficial. And she knew it. But nonetheless. And the remarkable thing was that the one guy was almost 30 years her younger and the other a little less than that her elder. Did it matter? Not really. Not here. Not now. She slept well that night.