Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Dan's Promo Page

Grandfather's Axe

by Daniel Ribot

The defense counsel turned his back to me to face the gallery. He was showboating. While I was looking at the back of his head, he asked his first question. "For the benefit of the court, could you state your name and occupation, please?"

"Dr. Malcolm Brook", I answered, "I am a physicist and engineer."

"Could you tell the court who you work for and what you do?"

I swallowed hard. I could swear the whole of the courtroom heard me. I glanced around nervously. "I am a partner at Neutrino Industries where I work as a particle engineer.", I said.

"And what exactly are your duties at Neutrino Industries, Dr. Brook?"

"Well, I help develop and maintain teleporter machines, really. Some management stuff and computer modeling too, but mostly..."

The lawyer jumped in with obvious gusto. "You work on teleportation machines! Could you please tell the court how these machines function?"

I really couldn't handle this. I felt all sweaty and shifty-looking. For one thing, I was sure my appearance counted against me. When wild red hair, sideburns and a face only a mother could love is looking back at you from the bathroom mirror, you could be forgiven for being a bit self conscious. I was also in my only suit; the bottle-green one. At least I had most of the beer stains out. Was I fidgeting? I hoped they didn't see me fidgeting. It would make me look so suspicious somehow, a ginger mad scientist. The lawyers were no help either; in their crisp fashionable suits and all that expensive grooming. I bet none of them had ever lost their only comb down the back of the sink. God, I wished it was all over.

I had been warned about the possibility of hostile questioning. I was so worried about it that I had not slept at all the previous night. The pressure was on. This was a really important case. It could, so the lawyers said, provide a loophole that made any crime unpunishable and change the theory and practice of criminal justice forever. It could also destroy the whole teleportation industry at a stroke. Not that the defense team would ever win, of course, but even a close-run race could have a devastating psychological effect. What if one day it happened and it did become a viable excuse, a get out of jail free card flourished by an unwitting technology? Would legitimate business turn their backs on us to be replaced by criminal syndicates and the Mafia? Would any good scientists want to work in this area if that happened? Probably not, I surmised. It was a lot of pressure. The kind of pressure I wasn't used to and was sure I could not handle. What a mess.

The problem stemmed from an open and shut criminal case. Bernard Foswick-Pfaltz, twenty-one, Phenol Amylase addict, thug and gofer for a number of prominent criminal organizations, had raped and murdered Loisha Macky, twenty-seven, an exotic dancer at the Tops n' Tailz Gentleman's Relish Emporium and Sauna. Her strangled, lifeless body was found on the morning of Sunday the 23rd of April at the John Lennon Memorial Garden by a dog walker. It did not take long to find the culprit. For one thing, the DNA evidence was conclusive and the police had no problem in tracking Bernard down. It was almost too easy. He even confessed to the crime without much prompting. The complications came later, when the prosecutor's office received an E-mail from Bernard's lawyer. At first the prosecutors laughed, then they ran around searching for precedents of the case. They found nothing satisfactory.


"Teleportation works through a four-stage process that transports matter from one point to another. The first stage is to, er... scan the object. The main problem at this stage is the inability to pinpoint individual particles. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle explains the main stumbling block here. It wasn't until we developed the theoretical tools including quantum entanglement ..."

"Objection! The witness is trying to confuse the jury."

"I think you might be right, counsel. Dr Brook, please make your answers more straightforward. If I wanted to add uncertainty and entanglement to this case, I would ask the lawyers. All right?"

"Yes, your Honor."

"Then continue."

"Err... the second stage is to reduce that object to its component particles. The third is to transport the data to the point of re-building. The last stage, the one that I tend to work on most, is the putting together of the object at the required target site."

"So, to be clear, you scan, then you break up the object, then you send the data and then you rebuild it at a chosen target site?"


"A further question, Dr Brook", inquired the lawyer, "Does the object teleported share any atoms at all with the original?"

"Well, if the target site is in the same room, then you couldn't discount the possibility that some atoms would drift..."

"In general terms, Dr Brook, if you transport the body to another room or elsewhere, isn't it true that the molecules of the object do not make the journey? It is the information, the building plan if you like, that is transferred to the, err, rebuilding site and nothing else goes with it?"

"Well, you're right, but..."

"So an object--say a gun--transported on one of your machines, would be re-built of new atoms. It would not be the same gun at all, would it? It would not contain a single atom from the original gun. Isn't that right?"


"So, let me get this straight, you do not send the atoms of the object through the teleporter to the new location and reassemble them?"

"Well, no. The object can be rebuilt from atoms already at the target location. It is not necessary to send particles from one place to another."

"In fact, this teleporter of yours is just a glorified 3D copying machine. The only difference between your gizmo and a 3D copier is that your process destroys the original and makes a copy which it places at a distance."

"I see what you're trying to say, however..."

"Dr Brook", said the lawyer, holding up a sheaf of photocopies for the benefit of the jury, "A photocopy of a book is not the same as the book itself, is it? It may contain the same text, but it is printed on different paper and using different ink. Toner even! They are not the same as the original book in any way. Would you describe them as identical?"

"No.", I said weakly.

"No indeed. So, to be clear, after teleportation a person is physically not the same person as they were before. Are they?"

"The real question is ..."

"I ask the questions, Dr Brook."

"Don't you just."

"I sense a certain amount of irritation, Dr Brook. Perhaps you should aim those feelings at your own company? It is they, after all, who teleported my client. Or a version of my client, that persuaded them to teleport him and keep his scanned record. Afterwards he went out and killed Loisha Macky and subsequently returned and was teleported again; back to the previously recorded version of himself. A version, I will remind the jury, that had been recorded prior to the murder. Not only is my client not the man who killed Loisha Macky, he does not share a single atom with the perpetrator of that hideous act. Isn't that true, Dr Brook?"

"It depends."

"Is it true or is it false, Dr Brook?"

"Although he is physically not the same person, it does not follow he is a different individual, after all, we replace all the cells in our bodies every seven years or so. That does not make us different people. On the other hand, it is possible for individuals to change their personality quite radically in a very short time..."

"You are not a psychologist as well, are you Dr Brook?", sneered the lawyer.

"No, but you asked me for a true or false answer that I am not qualified to respond to. In order to deal fairly with the question, I gave you my reasoning for you to assess. Or as much as I could manage before you interrupted me."

"So you refuse to answer my question?"

"Not at all. But I am unsure as to whether there is a definitive answer that I can give you. There is the celebrated case of the Grandfather's Axe, for instance, that is illustrative of the problem I face in providing you with an answer."

The judge then intervened. By his body language it could be easily discerned that he was getting rather frustrated with this verbal sparring. He exhaled loudly and banged his palms upon his desk. "Get on with it, counsel!", he snapped.

I regarded the judge with apprehension. I did not think he would listen to me for much longer, regardless of my evidence. I had to do it; I used the judges' intervention to get my point across.

"You may have heard this before", I began, "The story is about a peasant who is happy that his grandfather gifted him his old axe. He uses it often to chop wood. After a number of months the axe-handle breaks and it has to be replaced so he gets a new one. Years after that, the metal axe-head cracks and must also be changed. He does so. The peasant still refers to the object as his 'grandfather's axe' even though no part of it remains from the original gift. It has a different handle and a different head. But to him and to all who know of this object it is still grandfather's axe. Its identity err..."

"Transcends?", said the prosecutor helpfully.

"Yeah, thanks. Transcends. That is exactly what it does. Identity is about more than the bodies that clothe us, right? I have to swear on the Bible to speak here, I suppose, because you don't trust my atoms to..."

"Objection, irrelevant!" shouted the defense lawyer. The prosecutor stood bolt upright in order to reply to his adversary. The judge, sure that somebody was not listening to his wise and sage advice, warned Dr. Brook, both lawyers and the court itself to watch their step. Court proceedings ensued and Dr. Brook finished giving his evidence fairly quickly. It was no surprise to anybody that the verdict of Guilty was returned. Bernard, the innocent Bernard, buried his head in his hands as he was arraigned to await sentencing. It had been an open and shut case really, as he had planned to kill his victim prior to teleportation. Had he planned and carried out the murder before teleporting to a former innocent self, the jury might have had a trickier job. The judge then turned to Dr Brook and beckoned towards him. "If you please, Dr Brook, part of my ruling concerns you..."


The door of the cell clanged open. It stank of damp and rancid air. Bernard, sitting on his cot in a pale green overall, looked up to see Dr Brook and a guard appear at the door.

"What is it now?", he growled. Dr Brook cleared his throat and spoke.

"You made a complaint about the food. I'm here to tell you we have checked with the prison kitchens and the rations you receive are comparable to those that ordinary prisoners enjoy."


"Sorry, I meant, well, what the others get, if you know what I mean..."

Dr. Brook and the guard walked in glum silence from the cell after the somewhat awkward encounter. "I can't stand doing this, can you?", said Dr Brook.

"It's not the best part of the job, I admit."

"I can't believe the judge made us do it, you know. It just seems... so nasty somehow. To have two Bernards incarcerated for the same crime."

"Well, I agree to some extent, Dr Brook. Using a teleporter to materialize a murderer just so we can keep him imprisoned for the rest of his life is well, vindictive in a way, but it was a stupid idea to teleport himself from the crime-scene to here after the murder. We then had two teleporter records; one before the crime, one after. And the innocent Bernard was still guilty of conspiracy, that's why they jailed him. Then again, there is the victim to think of..." Dr Brook looked at the guard sympathetically.

"The worst thing is that the company has to hold the murderer until the other Bernard, the one in prison, is released. Could be years."

"Yeah, the judgment was pretty bizarre. Still, thinking on the bright side, I have a job for life here and with just one prisoner to deal with, it's a pretty easy gig."

"I'm pleased for you.", said Dr. Brook absentmindedly.

The silence descended again as both men walked to the end of the corridor. Dr Brook called the lift to take him back to his lab.

"Penny for them, Doc?" He turned to the guard and smiled.

"Sorry, I was miles away. I was just thinking; apparently we are selling a bunch of teleporters to prison services around the world. Some very literal-minded judges have found a way to make people serve multiple life-sentences by using our kit. Ain't technology wonderful?"

The prison guard smiled to himself and kicked a crumb of rubble towards the other end of the basement corridor. "If that means more inmates, we're going to need larger prisons then, aren't we Dr. Brook?"


© 2010 Daniel Ribot

Bio: Daniel Ribot is a freelance translator living in Leicester, after spells in Spain, France, Mexico and New Zealand. He has recently completed a draft of a novel --a chapter of which you can read on the Alt.Fiction conference website: ALT.FICTION. He boasts the only PhD on Mexican newspaper cartoons in the whole of England, a unique vantage point he feels he will maintain for the foreseeable future. Her blogs on a variety of stuff at: Floppybootstomp Compress.

E-mail: Daniel Ribot

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.