Time Balm

“Time Balm,” New Era, Jan. 1997, 41


Time Balm

My sister was “talking” to me through my computer. But she had been dead for nine months.

“Robert! What do you mean, you want to use your mission fund on computer equipment? You made some commitments to us, to the bishop, and to your twin sister before she …” His voice trailed off. “I loved Rachel too, son. I miss her too. But don’t you think she would have wanted you to go on your mission regardless of what happened to her?”

I just shook my head. Dad was still going on. “It was nine months ago, son. Maybe she would have wanted us all to bury our grief by now and get on with our lives.”

“I agree with you,” I mumbled. “I want to get on with my life. So why can’t I just use my mission fund on some nice computer equipment? It’s not as if Rachel is around to demand I act like nothing has changed.”

I stomped up the stairs, slammed my bedroom door, threw myself into my desk chair, and stared into the blank computer screen. Another argument. A bad one.

After hyperventilating for a while, I pushed the “on” button and powered up. The thought occurred to me that I seemed to relate better to my computer than I did to humans.

Do you want to work on your AI program as usual, sir?

I “Yessed” the option, and my Artificial Intelligence program, which we had been perfecting for the last year, appeared.

We? I mean I’m working on it alone now. My sister Rachel and I developed it, but she …

I began to fiddle with the program. I have to admit, Rachel was even better than me when it came to computer programming. She could break into any of my personal files, and she’d often leave me a scripture or some word of encouragement that would pop up on my screen. She could even do this from her hospital bed during those last days; she had her portable laptop (plugged into my computer by modem) with her every minute.

I pulled my mind back.

Anyway, her Artificial Intelligence conversational programs were the best I’d ever seen. It worked like this. A question or statement appears on the screen, and anyone can type in an answer. Then—and this is the tricky part—the computer program recognizes a word or a phrase from the human’s answer, and automatically responds with a prewritten answer, as if it were another human. If the person writing the program knows the person well enough, it would seem as if a normal conversation is taking place between the human and the computer. Of course, the machine side of the conversation had all been preprogrammed.

The first question appeared:

I am fine. How are you?

I reply: “I am just great.” The computer recognizes “great” from my answer and gives its prewritten response:

You are great. That is nice. Why do you feel great?

But I decide to tell the truth and type in “I lied. I’ve been feeling rotten for the last nine months.”

The program replies mechanically:

You are feeling rotten? I am sorry to hear that.

At this point, I began to get carried away. I had the overpowering urge to spill my innermost thoughts to somebody or something—even this stupid computer. So I started typing and I couldn’t stop.

“I am feeling rotten because I miss my twin sister.” I could feel tears running down my cheeks, hitting my hands, then rolling on to the keys. “She never complained. She was always joking with me, telling me how she could read me like a book, telling me how she wanted me to promise her that I’d still go on my mission when I turned 19. And I did promise her, just to make her feel better. Then she used to joke that she’d come back to haunt me if I didn’t leave on my mission. She always had that sly grin, that ridiculous wink, even when the pain was the worst.

“But how can I keep that promise to her? How can I go on a mission and ‘proclaim the gospel’ when I feel so bitter inside?”

My computer clock buzzed. It was midnight, exactly nine months from the day of her death. For that matter, it was nine months from when I was supposed to send my mission papers in.

Suddenly my computer screen went blank, and my hard drive began to buzz oddly. This isn’t supposed to happen. Oh no, I thought. I had been neglecting to do a backup system.

Suddenly I heard the synthesized system sing, “Boy, you’re in big trouble and your hard drive’s gonna be rubble unless you repent on the double!” It was then the terrible message appeared in large red letters over my screen:


My hands froze over the keys. A time bomb! One of the most awful forms of computer viruses. I tried to remember all I could about this monstrous file-invading practical joke.

A time bomb is an invasion program keyed into a computer’s clock or calendar. It can be put into the system anytime in the past—weeks, even months. It can be set to scramble files, or do anything, when the clock reaches a certain time or date. You can’t get your files unscrambled unless you do exactly what it tells you.

Another message appeared:

And don’t even think about unplugging and using your backup. That’s rigged to scramble also.

It must be a bluff, I thought. I mean, how could anyone get into my backup files? Only if they had all my security codes. But how did someone get into my system in the first place? Nobody could plant a time bomb in my system unless they had all my codes. And there’s only one person who had them, and she’s …

A cold, dull feeling began spreading from the pit of my stomach to my trembling hands, still frozen over the keyboard. And another message began to materialize on my monitor:

Robbie? Don’t be mad. It’s me.—Rachel.

I felt my hands drop to my sides, and I began to breathe funny.

I know you may be a bit surprised, but it’s all perfectly logical, really. I programmed this time bomb to go off nine months after you were supposed to send in your mission papers. I had to do it this way because I knew I’d be gone by then. If you were nicely off on your mission, your computer would have been safely turned off, and the time bomb would have canceled itself out.

But you haven’t left yet, have you, Robbie? I knew if you stayed home, you’d still be fooling around on this stupid machine all day. So because the computer is turned on and you’re not on your mission the time bomb has been activated, and you and I are going to have a little talk.

Okay, listen up. If you do everything I say, this program will unscramble your files. If not, our two-year project goes to byte heaven. Okay? Type your answer here now. And it better be the right answer.

I typed in “OK.” I didn’t have much choice. I was pretty dazed. It was like, well, a voice from the dust.

Her program recognized the correct response, so instead of deleting my files, it responded.

Good boy. I don’t have much time, so let’s get down to business. Remember, back at the hospital you promised me you’d go on your mission? Now, you know I can read you like a book! You kept averting your eyes and looking guilty. So I knew I’d have to arrange a way to do what the Book of Mormonprophets did. I call it my 2 Nephi 33:13 program. [2 Ne. 33:13]

Anyway, Robbie, you didn’t go on your mission like you promised. So now’s your chance to explain yourself. Multiple choice. Pick one.

I, Robbie, didn’t go on my mission because (a) I had some unforeseen difficulties (such as a weird disease or something); (b) I have some sort of worthiness problem; (c) I am bitter about my sister’s death.

This was starting to get ridiculous. How would her program know if I were to make up some sort of fictitious disease and choose “A.” Still, I had only lied to her once and she seemed to have picked up on that with no problem. No sense taking any chances. I might as well come clean and tell the truth. I chose “C” and pressed “Enter.”

Aha! I thought so! You’re still bitter because I had to die?

I started typing in my replies as if I were talking to a real, live person.

“I’m bitter because you had to suffer, and I’m bitter because you died.”

Robbie, remember what we used to do when either of us had a problem we couldn’t figure out? We used to get together and have a mini-scripture chase to find the answers. Well, let’s try that again.

How can I have a scripture chase with someone who’s … who’s dead? I wondered.

Here’s how it works. I’ll give you the scriptures to look up and you type them into the computer. The program will recognize them, and soon you’ll have your precious files unscrambled.

Suddenly the computer started listing scriptures I had to copy. I grabbed a set of scriptures and tried to keep up.

D&C 122:7; D&C 122:9; Rom. 8:28; Abr. 3:25; Mosiah 3:19; Mosiah 23:21.

How long was I typing those scriptures back into the computer? Three hours? Five hours? And then I had to answer questions about each verse. It was like some late-night, unending seminary lesson.

Just when I thought I would collapse and fall asleep, precious files or no precious files, the program declared:

Good job! Break time! Have a ten-minute rest.

I sunk back in my chair. I looked out the window, into the cloudless night. All those stars. I noticed I was beginning to feel different. It seemed like my jaw muscles had been clamped together for months, and I had just remembered how to relax them. Was I just getting my second wind, or were those scriptures getting through to me?

Then I noticed I had been using Rachel’s scriptures, the set she used in the hospital. There was a single piece of notepaper stuffed between the leaves, in shaky handwriting:

“Thank you for comforting me these last months. When the pain gets the worst, and I just want to die and get it over with, the nurses and my parents try to comfort me, to make me braver. But they can’t say, ‘I know what you’re going through’ because, of course, they don’t. But you can, because you’re going through worse than me. You just put on that smile and wink at me. You look so funny when you wink, I just have to laugh and then I feel better. You know, I think no one can really understand anyone that is in pain unless they have suffered the same pain themselves.”

The signature ran off the page, unintelligible.

The sound synthesizer played a few trumpet calls, and I shook myself out of my thoughts. I was once more poised at the keyboard, ready to resume what seemed to be her never-ending scripture chase. But instead, the screen declared:

Now, after studying all those scriptures, you should know everything there is to know about why some people have to suffer and die. Yes or no?

I sighed and checked “No.” I had failed. I still didn’t completely understand.

Aha! Gotcha! Of course you don’t understand all the answers to all the questions mankind has been asking for ages. Nice to see you’re finally being honest about it, though.

But at least I got you studying the scriptures again. Keep studying them prayerfully. The answers are all in there. And even if you don’t completely understand everything, come on, admit it. As you read the scriptures again, didn’t you start to feel a little of the peace we always used to feel after a good scripture read?

Or maybe a lot, I thought.

Yes, Robbie, I had to suffer and die—just like a lot of other people. Like the others in my cancer ward, like the handcart pioneers, like Joseph Smith. I prayed, like you, because I wanted to know what was going on, but I didn’t get an answer. But at least I got a feeling of peace, like Heavenly Father was there with me, telling me it was necessary.

You must be reading this sometime after my death, so I guess by now I know all the answers. I wish I could really come back and explain everything to you, but I suppose it’s not my place to tell you. But I can tell you this. I am surrounded by great and good spirits, spirits that want their families who are still on the earth to hear the gospel. I never had the opportunity to go on a mission in earth life, but here, who knows? But I have done my job on earth and will do my job where I am now.

It’s time for you to do yours.

I looked at my hands, as they now rested on the keyboard. My tears had dried, and I realized the alarm clock was ringing. It was dawn. I let it ring. I had to type very slowly because my hands were still trembling.

“Yes, Solemn Twin Promise.”

The program recognized my response, and the printer activated itself, typing out a letter.

“Dear Bishop. I want to meet with you and talk about my mission. Can we get together this Sunday after church?”

Why don’t you sign this handy note and send it off tomorrow?

“Robbie.” My mother was calling from down the hall. “Your alarm clock’s ringing. Wake up and turn it off!”

I pulled the paper out of the printer, signed it, and addressed it to the bishop.

I knew you’d make me proud of you, Robbie! Now you can have our—your—files back, and it’s time for me to go. But when you return in two years or so, turn the computer back on. You never know what other surprise messages I’ve planted in it.

“I can hardly wait,” I replied.

The screen went blank again, and I could hear the drives at work as the time bomb program told them how to unscramble the AI project files. But just before the monitor returned to normal, the family picture file activated, and I caught a half-second glimpse of a picture of Rachel grinning.

And winking.

Illustrated by Roger Motzkus