I should have been more careful. I was fooling around with the electrical circuit breaker panel behind my house, and as soon as I poked the screwdriver in underneath the switch I knew I'd done the wrong thing. There was a loud cracking sound, and then everything went black and I felt my body floating in air. "Whew!" I said to myself, "It sure smells like something's burning."
The next thing I knew I was in a long tunnel, walking toward a bright light. A kindly gentleman who looked like Jimmy Carter greeted me and led me into a lavish office. "Mr. Reinhardt, we've been waiting for you," he said, bringing my picture and vital statistics up on a giant computer screen hanging on the wall and offering me his hand. "My name's Rodney. Rodney St. Peter. I see that you're a vegetarian..."
"Is this heaven?" I asked.
Rodney laughed. "Not yet—but the next best thing, you lucky guy. Your next reincarnation is going to be in Meat World 2100—the perfect future on Earth as created by the joint efforts of the American Meat Institute and the American Dairy Association!"
He must have seen the terror in my face. "Oh, don't worry," Rodney said immediately. "You're going to loooovvve it! Look, your guides are here now for your orientation."
I spun around and saw a stocky man and a blonde woman in western suits and cowboy boots. They introduced themselves as "Mr. Bertram" and "Jan," and no sooner had one of them said "come along with us" than we were climbing into a flashy car with the softest leather upholstery imaginable.
"I think you'll find that Meat World 2100 addresses every concern you vegetarians may once have had," Mr. Bertram said as he swiveled the front seat of the car around to face me. "Here, have one of our official pins."
Before I could object Mr. Bertram had pinned a tiny holographic picture of a smiling cow to my shirt. He was beaming with pride at the man-made environment around us. We were on an elevated, computer-guided highway, cruising through a landscape of skyscrapers and "Super-Mega Wal-Mart" stores.
"You vegetarians were right in pointing out the problems with eating animal products... we can admit that now," Jan elaborated. "But by the end of the twenty-first century, when Meat World 2100 was being planned, we'd already addressed most of those concerns. We developed pills to counter the effects of cholesterol and fat in the body, and other pills to simulate the effects of anti-oxidants and quistines in fruits and vegetables."
"Oh, they didn't know about them in your time—but they're very good for you. Anyway, we can do it all synthetically now, with petrochemicals. So eating steaks and hot fudge sundaes is every bit as good for you as the plant foods that humans once consumed. Would you believe it, our school lunches now consist of hamburgers and ice cream, with lots of milk!"
"They did in my day too," I answered.
Jan and Mr. Bertram took me to one of their "food processing facilities" for a tour. It was a sixty-story building that went on for blocks. Across from the entrance was a McDonald's restaurant, still with the ugly golden arches. The sign read: "More billions served than even we can imagine!"
Our first stop was the chicken processing line where square blocks of featherless birds stretched as far as the eye could see. "These chickens are genetically engineered to be 95% breast meat," Mr. Bertram told me. "See how we've been able to shrink the wings and head down to almost nothing? And we make them square so they take up less space."
"What are the tubes going into them?" I asked.
"Life support systems. All their food, water and oxygen flow in through those tubes, and the animals' waste flows out for recycling. Genetic engineering pushes the limits of living systems, you know—these birds couldn't live for a second in the ambient environment."
"Removing the tubes is our method of humane slaughter!" Jan chimed in proudly.
My two hosts took me to see the dairy cows (which looked like small tanker trucks on hooves) and the "all prime tenderloin" steers before we went back to the training room for a debriefing. I was starting to feel sick by that time, but Jan still wanted to talk about science. "Isn't genetics wonderful?" she asked. "Within the next five years all babies born in Meat World 2100 will have blonde hair, perfect teeth, and noses like Shirley MacLaine."
Out in the hall behind my hosts I caught sight of a small man jumping up and down and waving wildly to get my attention.
"I think I need to use your rest room," I said suddenly.
"Down the hall to your right," Mr. Bertram pointed. "Take it easy with the high suction tubes, though. If you aren't used to them they can turn you inside out."
When I got out the door the little man grabbed my arm and pulled me into an elevator. "I'm Eddie," he said excitedly. "Thank goodness I found you."
"Where are we going?" I asked as he hit the down button.
"Veggie World 2100, of course!" He handed me the small holographic picture of an eggplant. "Here, have one of our official pins."
Eddie's car looked like a 1987 Honda I once owned, but magically, a second after Eddie put it in gear, we were traveling over a landscape of forested hillsides and valleys thick with grasses. "Is this Veggie World?" I asked.
"That's right," Eddie said. "And I'm taking you to meet the number one, big honcho veggie himself—he goes by the name of Rumim."
We found Rumim sitting by himself in a comfortable apartment on the outskirts of a small town. He had a bald head and a white robe, and he sat cross-legged on the floor with a serene look on his face. Somehow he must have been expecting me, because he greeted me warmly, and then tried to address the questions I had.
"Veggie World 2100 may appear similar to the world you once lived in, but there are overwhelming improvements." He motioned for me to sit down, and then went on. "You see, at the end of the twenty-first century we decided to form a society based on a very simple principle—reverence for all life. No one could have imagined what a difference it would make! War was eliminated overnight, as was virtually all crime. Of course, disease went way down and the quality of our environment improved dramatically. Now we spend the money that used to go to warplanes and hospitals and jails on education, music, art and Tofumatics."
"They're advertised on our late-night TV," Eddie explained. "For $79.95 you can make tofu at home—in twelve exciting flavors."
"We've fared a lot better than our counterparts who took the other course and started Meat World 2100," Rumim went on. He shook his head sadly. "They've been plagued by disease, environmental contamination, and the continual unrest brought on by the struggle for domination over other creatures—non-human and human. They live in poverty now, and their numbers have almost died out..."
"But that's not true!" I said. "I just visited Meat World 2100. It was creepy, but it certainly seemed successful."
Rumim and Eddie laughed hysterically at that, and it was several seconds before they calmed down enough that I could ask what the joke was.
"That wasn't the real Meat World 2100," Rumim explained. "What you saw was their virtual reality cyberspace demo. They just made that to lure in new members!"
"Wow..." I thought about what might have been my fate. Thank goodness Eddie rescued me. "Well, I know I'm going to like living in Veggie World 2100," I said. I was already thinking about getting one of those Tofumatics.
Rumim shook his head.
"You can't stay here," he told me. "You have to go back to your life at the turn of the twenty-first century. The work all you vegetarians did then was necessary in laying the groundwork for Veggie World 2100. ...I'm sorry, but we still need you there."
"But what can I do? I'm just a bozo!"
Rumim nodded. "We know. But everyone counts."
When I awoke I was flat on my back. "What a vivid dream!" I thought. Then I saw the two holographs pinned to my chest, and I sat up in a bolt. So, maybe it wasn't just a dream.
Suddenly I felt as though I had a lot of work to do, although I wasn't sure exactly what it was I should be doing. I've got to get started, I said to myself. After all, it's up to us—bozos included—to assure the great vegetarian future.