As an historian I seldom delve into metaphysics, but in fiction I’ve had more opportunity. Or, to be more precise, I created the opportunity. Here’s how it came about:
My 1992 novel The Sixth Battle postulated a post-Soviet naval engagement in the Indian Ocean. It pitted a "Russian Federation" alliance with Southern African front-line states in conflict at sea and ashore. The main combatants were a U.S. Navy carrier battle group centered around the imaginary Forrestal class carrier USS Langley and a Russian task force including the carrier Varyag.
War gamers occasionally still contact me about The Sixth Battle, expressing their interest in the war-at-sea scenario, which would be impossible today.
To set the stage: Langley’s Air Wing 18 launched a long-range strike against the Soviet force, resulting in losses on both sides. One of the downed A-6E Intruders was “Killer 530” flown by Lieutenant Commander Peter Huggins and Lieutenant (jg) Justin Olsen. They ejected from their stricken bomber well clear of the target area but remained adrift in their small raft until finally found. The narrative resumes aboard an ammunition supply ship…
USS Mount St. Helens, Indian Ocean, 0148 Zulu
Lieutenant Commander James Rixey was having no luck with the debrief. Even though the most seriously-wounded survivors of Battle Group Charlie had been choppered to the amphibious force, Rixey’s ammunition ship and others in the underway replenishment group were stuffed with rescued crews. All of Rixey’s interviewees had been sailors—until now.
Sitting across from the two waterlogged aviators, the admin officer tried to convince them to open up But he couldn’t blame them for preferring food to conversation. Poor bastards—almost four days afloat in a rift in the middle of the damn Indian Ocean.
Wire-haired “Brillo” Huggins speared another mouthful of medium-rare steak. It was delicious. A corpsman stood by, gauging whether the Intruder crew was in danger of gorging on the unaccustomed feast. Ever since ejecting from Killer 530 after the strike against the Novorossiysk, the pilot and bombardier-navigator had subsisted on meager survival rations.
Rixey decided to try again. “Look, I know you guys are hungry. But your squadron will want to know about you right away. So will your families.”
The B/N, a straight-arrow Mormon ironically dubbed “Sleaze,” looked up. His bathrobe’s cuff almost dangled on his plate. “You mean we’ve already been reported MIA?”
The personnel officer shrugged. “Well, I don’t know for sure, after all the confusion. But it seems that with…”
“Pass the sauce,” Brillo asked. A steward shoved the Heinz to him.
“…the truce at sea, things will get sorted out.” Rixey sounded hopeful.
Sleaze laid down his fork. “Look, Commander, what more we can we tell you? We hit our target, took battle damage on the egress and punched out. Just say that Huggins and Olsen of VA-186 are still afloat.”
Rixey knew when to stop. “Okay, okay.” He rose to leave. “Say, if you don’t mind me asking, what did you guys do for four days in the water?”
Brillo shook more sauce onto his steak. “To tell you the truth, I thought we’d go crazy out there at first. But toward the end we broke the code.” He looked up. “We figured out The Meaning of Life.”
The admin officer gaped at the pilot, uncertain whether Huggins was serious or not. “You solved the mystery of the ages. Right.”
Sleaze pointed at his empty plate. “Hit me again, please,” he told the steward.
“No, it’s true,” Brillo insisted. “Well, actually, Justin here did most of it. We’re gonna publish a new dogma, ‘The Book of Sleaze.’”
The corpsman, the steward, and the officer all waited expectantly. Olsen accepted another mini steak and sighed aloud. “The Meaning of Life,” he intoned, “is infinite. It is precisely what every human soul chooses to make of it.” He plunked a salt shaker onto the molded plastic table top with a sound that rang, high and pure, through the eons.
The ship’s sleepy but excited chaplain, tape recorder in hand, paced into the galley, asking for Huggins and Olsen of VA-186.