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The Hanging Judge

No matter how remote, colonies need law and order like anywhere else. Someone has to hold people accountable and keep the criminals at bay, right? You’d think a judge who travels with an execution chamber and a prison ship would be feared throughout the Colonies, but Judge Morell quickly discovers that’s not true of everyone in this interesting tale by multi-award winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch . . .



They called her a hanging judge, even though no one got ever got hanged. However, Judge Esmé Morell did travel with an execution chamber deep inside the prison wing of her small ship. She used that chamber—and the threat of that chamber—more than all of the other judges on the circuit.

At conferences, at judicial review, she justified her position this way: The Anzler Colonies were still a group of colonies, loosely tied. None had great prison facilities, most didn’t have the resources to house prisoners. No one seemed to agree with her, but she didn’t care. She didn’t get in trouble, although she occasionally had to justify a decision.

She didn’t worry about it. Instead, she did her job—she went to the outlying colonies, stayed a month or two, listened to cases, passed judgment, then came home for a month or two, got some sleep, and then repeated it all. None of it made for a great personal life, but it did make for a fantastic public one.

And one of the things she liked the very best was that moment at the space port, when she and her four armed guards stepped off the ship. Inside the small port—and outside Latica, they were all small ports—the crowds would often wait for her in the narrow passageway between the docking bay and the interior of the port. Those crowds would always watch her warily. Sometimes, she could actually see the words, “The Hanging Judge,” as she walked past the gossips.

Everyone thought they had something to fear from her, and some days, she liked to believe everyone was right.


The hanging judge’s ship was smaller than Jeremiah Keegan expected. The hanging judge herself was smaller, too. He liked that she was small; it made things easier. However, he was concerned about the size of the ship.

He stood in the center of the crowd, gathered, like crowds always did, to see a ship from Latica land. Latica, the first colony, the biggest, the richest, the farthest away, actually had the money—and the resources—to build ships like this.

Shaped like the original ships, but with more up-to-date equipment, these ships had the quality of myth, at least in his mind. He’d expected this one to house half the colony of Pavonne, when in point of fact, maybe one-hundred people could fit inside.

Not that he had a hundred people for today’s action. He barely had twenty, and not all of them were here. Some were in the arrivals wing, others at the far end of the crowd, and two should’ve entered Port Command Central right now. Port Command Central sounded so important, but it was usually one person struggling to fight off sleep. So few ships came to Pavonne that Port Command Central often had someone on call instead of monitoring the equipment.

Keegan’s heart pounded, and his entire body shook. He’d never taken a stand on principle before—at least not one of those stands that could end in someone’s death. He shoved his hands in his pockets, felt the coolness of the ancient laser against his skin, and knew that the moment when he could call everything off was passing.

The hanging judge walked by, flanked by four gigantic bodyguards in full body armor, dark and black and intimidating. Somehow she didn’t get lost in the middle of them, even though she was a foot shorter, a little rounder, and wearing no armor at all.

Was that an intimidation thing? A confidence thing? Or something else? He’d heard that they were finally developing new tech in Latica, stuff that replicated the nanotech their people had left behind two hundred years before. No one had been able to do it until now, not because the tech was lost, but because development was resource- and energy-intensive, and those things were always in short supply.

Maybe the judge wore one of those skinny nanothings under that old-fashioned suit of hers, with its great coat and thin pants. Or maybe she just had the confidence of the virtuous. Maybe she was oblivious to everything but her own opinion.

That’s what he hoped. That’s what he’d heard. But that wasn’t his problem. That was Andrea’s. Andrea got the judge. He got the ship.

They’d do the rest on their own, if they could.

Even if his people all died, as he’d said at the last meeting, at least the Anzler Colonies would understand the importance of the cause.


Six months of planning got Andrea Leidinger to the place she was now. Standing front and center in Arrivals, dressed in her new suit actually purchased by the government of Pavonne, three tiny laser pistols—if guns this small could be called pistols—hidden on her person.

The one that bothered her the most, attached by a small pocket inside her right sleeve, felt twenty times larger than the others. Twenty times larger, twenty times more conspicuous, twenty times more important.

But no one checked for weapons in Pavonne because everyone had weapons. Even though Pavonne established itself fifty years before, it had done so on the largest island in the Clearwater Sea. So beautiful, so perfect, so threatened by damn near everything on Anzler’s sixth moon.

Other colonies had started on this moon and failed. Pavonne had made it, but with lots of death, and lots of hardship, no thanks to Latica. It wasn’t until the Pavonners—no one dared call them Founders, since the Founders were the Originals, the ones who settled Latica—had figured out how to build the Clearwater barrier that the violence from the native species tamed down.

Not that anyone really believed it. And everyone knew that if they ventured outside that barrier, they could die in less than an instant.

Unless they were prepared.

She waited near the doors. Her job was to be the beautiful face of the welcoming committee. That was if anyone cared to record the arrival for some kind of news feed. If anyone actually thought the arrival was newsworthy, actual reporters would’ve been here.

They had no idea what was planned.

The actual reporters would end up using a feed because the hanging judge’s presence in a colony wasn’t news at all.

It took all of Leidinger’s strength not to look over her shoulder at her accomplices. They had the side and back doors guarded. They also had an escape route in place, one that would startle the local authorities.

No one ever did anything big at this tiny port. Big events didn’t happen in Pavonne, at least not so far. The cases facing Morell on her docket were—at their core—all domestics. Someone killing family, friends, co-workers, usually in a mass, sometimes accidentally.

And the only reason the judge showed up for those instead of doing them via private feed from Latica was simple: somewhere in the past, someone had mandated that no one could be put to death in any of the Anzler Colonies without actual in-person contact. Contact later got defined as a trial of some sort, even though the witnesses, the evidence, the actual case all got presented in absentia.

She watched the judge stride past the crowd without noticing any faces inside it. The judge didn’t leave the protection of her bodyguards for the entire journey, which wasn’t a surprise.

Leidinger had watched dozens of recorded arrivals from this judge, and they all followed a pattern, a pattern the judge herself mandated. She wouldn’t meet or greet local officials inside the port. She would have a formal meeting (with video) hours after her arrival. She did, however, need a local to guide her to the place that would be her home for the next month or two, and she also needed someone she could order about.

Everyone seemed so surprised at how happy Leidinger was to accept that assignment. Apparently, no one wanted the job. Or maybe no one had taken Leidinger as the kind of person who liked taking orders.

Everyone, apparently, saw her more clearly than she realized. So they really wouldn’t be surprised when she violated protocol.

She almost laughed out loud. Violating protocol.

What she was doing was so much more than violating protocol.

But she was going to do it anyway.


Once every five years, Judge Morell got Pavonne duty, and once every five years she remembered why she hated it so much. The landing in the tiny port, the long walk of shame (as she privately called it), and afterwards, what awaited her? A mediocre dinner at the “best” restaurant in Pavonne with the current colony governor. Fortunately, this time, it was a rather entertaining fellow named David Chamberlain, whom she’d met in Latica more than once. That at least was something to look forward to.

This next meet-and-greet was something she didn’t look forward to. She couldn’t quite escape the “hellos,” that each colony wanted to inflict on her, no matter what. So she did them her way: rude and tough.

She glanced at the young earnest woman who had agreed to be her factotum. The poor creature wore a clearly new suit that was at least four years out of date, in Latica styles anyway. She looked uncomfortable as she waited, a fake smile pasted on her reasonably attractive face.

If Morell did her job correctly, that smile would be the last smile on the young woman’s face for at least a month. The Hanging Judge had a reputation to maintain, after all, and it wasn’t the nicest reputation.

Morell nearly smiled herself. Nice. No one used that word for her. To the best of her recollection, no one ever had.

Which was one reason why she was so very, very good at her job.


Keagan slipped out of the crowd, and headed to the side door hidden into the wall. He tapped in the code, then held up his left thumb and marveled as the door’s scans registered him as a port employee. He hadn’t been anyone’s employee in more than a decade.

But his people were doing their job. They’d spent six months planning for this.

He stepped inside the door, then held it open just a little. Two other members of his team joined him. They would capture the ship, while the rest of the team would get the judge back on board.

Of course, they’d discussed rushing the ship when it arrived, and he was now glad they’d decided against it. Even as he held that door, he could see the crowd dispersing.

Only a few members of that crowd even cared about the judge. Most of them were hangers-on, folks who took time out of their day to greet any ship that came to Pavonne. Not that they had many opportunities to do so. With the exception of the supply ships that came from Latica twice a year, the circuit judges and the occasional visiting politicians were the only official arrivals. Once in a while, some private ship came in, bearing visitors or extreme hunters or “explorers.” The “explorers” angered him the most. He wanted to ask each and every one of them why they assumed no one in Pavonne was smart enough to explore every solid surface of this moon.

But he didn’t. He liked to say he kept his opinions to himself, but he didn’t do that either. He shared them with like-minded folk, which was why he was here right now. With like-minded folk, letting the door ease shut, and then heading down the narrow corridors to the back of the ship.

Docking was such a complicated procedure. Lots of locks and clamps and requirements. Some connection between the port and the ship. In the larger ports, like Latica itself, some decontamination procedures, and a few laws that allowed a shipboard search without a warrant.

And on the dry run for this part of this trip three months ago, he’d convinced all of the port workers that the informal rules in Pavonne had changed. Now Pavonne inspected vehicles that arrived from other places.

No one questioned it, especially visitors from Latica. Latica types expected rules. He suspected the judge expected rules as well.

Particularly since she was here to enforce them.

He nodded at his colleagues as they walked quickly toward the only dock in use.

This part of the mission had a timetable, which he established.

It was now up to him to make sure the timetable got met.


The smile Leidinger had pasted on her face was a sham, but she had no idea how to make it real or even realistic. She smiled, but she felt like some feral creature baring its teeth, instead of someone happy to be doing her job.

As the judge approached, Leidinger took a silent deep breath and braced herself. Part of her didn’t believe that the judge would follow protocol. Because if the judge didn’t follow it right here and now, the entire plan would go awry.

Then the judge stepped in front of her group of bodyguards. She didn’t bother to paste a smile of any kind on her own face. She just grimly came forward, hand extended, as if she were about to touch something unclean.

Maybe she was.

“Judge Morell,” Leidinger said in her warmest voice, “welcome to Pavonne.”

The judge moved her tiny hand forward, about to brush fingertips as she had done a thousand times in other greets. But Leidinger didn’t let her. Leidinger grabbed the judge’s hand tightly, and pulled her close, just as she had practiced.

And, as she had practiced, the little laser pistol slid from its pocket into her right hand. She raised the pistol to the judge’s ear, and stuck the edge inside. She’d learned, through all her practice, all her study, that the pistol was almost impossible to forcibly remove from this position, without it going off.

One bodyguard hurried forward.

“Don’t even try it,” Leidinger said. “You attack me, the judge dies. You will all stay back and let me take her out of here.”

The bodyguard glanced down at the judge. Leidinger could see the judge’s face reflected in the clear wall ahead of her. The judge didn’t look frightened, which was too bad. Leidinger wanted her to be scared.

Leidinger still was.

“We’ve been through this before, Raul,” the judge said to her guard. “Don’t worry.”

The guard nodded, and Leidinger tried not to smile. She had thought the judge might say something like that. The judge had been taken hostage three times before. All three times had been in a makeshift courtroom after or before a verdict, when the judge seemed vulnerable.

All three times had been attacks of the moment, impulsive and out of control. Leidinger had seen vids of all of them, and in every case, the hostage-taker was panicked long before grabbing the judge.

Leidinger wasn’t panicked. Even though she still felt terrified, the terror was one of meeting expectations now, not of dying or of losing or even of failing.

This terror was a familiar one, the one she’d had before exams, on the first day of school, on her interview for this very job.

The judge smelled of lavender and sweat. She didn’t move, but remained clasped in Leidinger’s arms, not fighting. The bodyguard backed off.

“You’re coming with me,” Leidinger said to the judge. “And I’m not going to drag you. I’ll shoot you first. So make sure your legs cooperate.”

Leidinger moved backwards for just a moment, then her own team flanked her and hurried with her toward the exit near the back. When they’d reached it, she removed the laser pistol from the judge’s ear, and shoved the judge at Barry Culver. Culver grabbed the judge, slung her over his shoulder, and ran down the hall with her so fast that no one else could keep up.

Behind Leidinger, screams, shouts, and threats. Then they muted as the doors slid shut.

Almost done, Leidinger thought, then checked the laser pistol to make sure it wouldn’t go off accidentally, and slipped it back in her sleeve. Then she took off after her group, hoping she could catch them.

The last thing she wanted was to get left behind when the ship took off. She didn’t want to imagine what would happen to her then.


One by one, the security feeds winked out. Governor David Chamberlain stood up from his desk and stared at the blank walls in front of him.

The judge arrived, tried to fake a handshake, and then got taken captive. He didn’t recognize the woman who had captured her. He did recognize—even from that brief instant he saw on the feeds—how well planned this attack was.

He tapped the security console on the left side of his desk. “You got all that right?” he asked his security chief.

“Yes, sir,” she said. “We’re doing what we can. The feeds got cut at the port.”

As if it were a real port, with real security. It was no more secure than the local hotel was. Latica collected taxes from Pavonne, but didn’t grant any of the colony’s requests for improvement. The main reason so few ships even came here was the size of that damn port. It couldn’t accommodate most vessels that traveled between Anzler and its moons. Even the judge had to take a smaller ship just to come here, and she always protested.

I can’t take as many prisoners back, she would say before her visits here. As if she ever took prisoners anyway. The cases she heard that ended in a guilty verdict almost always ended in death rather than lifetime imprisonment in the facility near Latica.

Chamberlain tried to shake nasty thoughts of the woman out of his head. He had to respond like he would to the kidnapping of any other citizen. Only he wasn’t going to. Because he didn’t want word out that the hanging judge could be kidnapped—that anyone could be kidnapped in Pavonne’s port.

He did his job. He let security know they had his fullest authority to do what they needed to end this crisis. He also let the Government of the Anzler Colonies in Latica know that the judge was in trouble.

Then he dithered for just one moment. Personal dithering. Petty dithering.

In the end, he decided to keep the reservation at Pavonne’s best restaurant. No sense tipping off anyone that the judge wouldn’t make it.

Besides, he needed to eat. No matter what.


Morell’s teeth rattled as the big buffoon carried her through the narrow back corridors of the port. His sharp muscular shoulder dug into her stomach and his hands had a disturbingly impersonal grip on her thighs. For the first time since she’d become a judge, she regretted her small size. If she’d been as big as this idiot was, no one could have slung her over his shoulder like so much dirty laundry. Her legs were so short that she couldn’t even kick him in an effective part of his anatomy.

She knew better than to beg him to put her down. Begging automatically placed her at a disadvantage. So she just bounced along, trying to remain as silent as possible, although the jostling occasionally made her grunt involuntarily.

She had no idea where this crew of ruffians was taking her, but it probably wasn’t anywhere she wanted to go.

She went over scenarios in her mind—these were probably friends of the accused who wanted something from her. Or people related to others she’d condemned. Violent types who should be stopped and whose gene pools should dead-end.

Of course, she hadn’t gotten that dead-end gene pool idea approved in Latica either. They kept calling her radical there.

She wondered if they would call her radical now.

Not that it mattered. What mattered were the next few hours. She had to decide if she was going to try to negotiate with these idiots, lie to these idiots, or suffer these idiots silently.

Right now, they hadn’t done much more than make her teeth hurt, cause all the blood to rush to her head, and embarrass her in front of half of this backwater colony.

As long as they didn’t really harm her, she might actually survive.


Timing was just about spot on. Keegan opened the prisoner exchange door on the judge’s ship. He could see the exfiltration group bringing the judge now. She was draped over Culver’s shoulder, her short hair pointing downward. Surprisingly, she wasn’t fighting.

Keegan was vaguely disappointed; he’d expected a fighter.

He held the door open, somewhat amazed at how smoothly the plan was going. He’d put on an environmental mask before boarding the ship, put an airborne sedative into the environmental controls from the cargo bay, and had knocked out what crew there were within seconds.

He’d locked the crew in the prisoner wing, and upped the oxygen levels everywhere. The crew would wake up slowly, but they wouldn’t be able to stop him.

Then he put his pilot on the bridge, let his experts take a peek at the controls, and waited.

Smooth, smooth, smooth.

Something had to go wrong soon. Law of averages.

Then Culver arrived with Judge Morell.

She was awake, her head rising in surprise as she realized where she was.

“Where do you want her?” Culver asked.

They hadn’t decided this part. Did Keegan want her near the bridge? Or in the prisoner wing?

It would be much more interesting if she were on the bridge, but then she’d need to be trussed up. Still, they had the equipment here. He could bring her up there.

“So you’re the idiot in charge,” she snapped. “You do realize you won’t get very far in my ship.”

Her voice grated already. Keegan hadn’t expected that.

Decision made.

“Put her in the cell next to the execution chamber,” he said.

It was in the prison wing, but not part of the prison wing. From what he’d seen of the specs, it could be used as solitary if need be.

“You’ll never get away with this,” she said, not bothering to ask what he was trying to get away with.

He patted her face just a little harder than he should have. “The melodrama doesn’t suit you, Judge,” he said, then nodded at Carver to lock her away.

“Governor,” his assistant Teresa Spencer said, “Latica wants you to make sure this group doesn’t leave Pavonne. They’ll send you some assistance.”

Chamberlain rubbed two fingers along his forehead, almost wishing for a headache to begin. He deserved a headache. The situation called for a headache.

“Do they want to tell me how I’m going to prevent them from leaving, since I never got the funding for the security fleet that I asked for?” he said.

“I—um—asked, sir,” she said, “a bit more politely, but I did ask. They want you to shut down the port, make sure nothing takes off.”

He laughed. He couldn’t help himself. The officials from Latica had clearly never come here. The port was a small-scale version of Latica’s port from seventy-five years ago. No security upgrades, no staff to speak of besides maintenance, and certainly no one monitoring the space traffic.

He knew better, though, than to try to tell a bunch of bureaucrats—who couldn’t be bothered with much more than a “verbal understanding” mixed with an “oh, yeah, pay your taxes” —that some of the tax money had to actually return to a colony for that colony to thrive.

There was only so much a place could do on its own, especially after all of its resources went into the Clearwater barrier, patrolling the borders, and making sure that some of the food in the hydroponics bays actually made it into the colony proper.

But that was an argument for another day. Side issues, those horrid bureaucrats would tell him. They’d command him to fix this problem.

“Inform them we’re doing our very best,” Chamberlain said.

“Sir?” she said. “We’re not doing anything right now.”

He raised his head and looked at her. He had forgotten how young she really was—unlined skin, wide brown eyes.

“What do you suggest we do, Spencer?”

She took a deep breath, then let it out. “I can order port security to take the conspirators into custody.”

And put them where? He almost asked. The jail we have is full of murderers, awaiting the judge’s final decision.

But he didn’t ask. Instead, he smiled. “Good thinking,” he said. “Let’s do that.”


The ship lifted out of the port with surprising ease. Keegan stood on the bridge, watching as the ship headed to a point just outside of the range of Latica’s fleet of ships.

Then he contacted the Government of the Anzler Colonies:

“I have Judge Morell,” he said. “I will negotiate for her release.”

“Or what?” the Assistant to the Chief Executive said.

The response startled him. He’d expected someone to ask him what he wanted.

“Or we will execute her,” he said.

“Hm,” the Assistant to the Chief Executive said. “Give me a minute.”

Too easy. It was starting to bother Keegan. He had his crew search for fleet ships, search to make sure that Latica’s meager defense weapons weren’t trained on the ship, search to make sure they hadn’t been followed off Pavonne.

They hadn’t. They were alone out here.

The communications array chirruped. Keegan nodded at his navigator, who opened communications.

“Sorry to take so long,” the Assistant said. “The Council says you should go about your business.”

“Excuse me?” Keegan asked.

“Execute her, keep her, steal the ship, we don’t care,” the Assistant said.

“You—what?” Keegan asked. “You haven’t even asked who I am. What I want.”

“As I said,” the Assistant spoke firmly. “We really don’t care.”

Then he shut off communications, and try as Keegan and his people might, no one would respond to his hails. No one. Not on Latica, not on Pavonne.

“What the hell is this?” Keegan asked.

“Wish I knew,” his navigator said.


Every conspirator they could find—all three of them—got rounded up and placed in Pavonne’s overcrowded jail. Chamberlain wished he could be more excited about that, or the fact that seventeen people had escaped on the judge’s ship.

Orders came from Latica: Don’t let the ship land on Pavonne again. Not that the ship was trying. It remained a blip out in space, hovering there, probably as confused as everyone else was.

Chamberlain wasn’t confused, not really. He finally had an order he could follow. He could keep people out of Pavonne. Every colony in the system got a defense grid when the colony reached a certain size. It hadn’t been upgraded in forty years, but he’d consider its use against the judge’s ship a test, if he had to.

Although he doubted he’d have to.

What kind of kidnapper slinked back to the port he’d left from? If anything, those bad guys would wait until they got what they wanted or some other place took them in.

Which meant they weren’t his problem anymore.


Judge Morell finally had a reaction. Pure, unadulterated fury.

“What do you mean they aren’t going to negotiate for me?” she asked the twerp who had kidnapped her.

He stood outside the execution cell, looking smaller and less powerful than he had when he stood in the doorway. She could attribute this to the fact she no longer had to raise her head at an odd angle to see him, but she doubted that was what was really going on. He seemed smaller, because he was smaller.

He was too dumb to realize this had to be a ploy.

“Let me on the comm,” she said. “I have an emergency code. Once they understand that you’re not kidding, they will resolve this.”

Maybe Government were already planning a raid. Maybe they had a team that was going to rescue her. But if they did, wouldn’t they be a little more careful about telling the twerp they didn’t care? After all, that could mean he might kill her.

He reached around to the control panel near the door to the execution area. “Give me the information.”

Maybe that was what this was all about: her code. They could use it to—what? Get into judicial files? Pretend to be her? That seemed to minor and too subtle for a crew this unsophisticated.

She gave him the codes, then waited. It took longer than she expected, but finally the Chief Executive’s voice echoed in the relatively small space.

“Esmé?” he said. “Did they release you?’

“Why would they do that?” she snapped. “You won’t negotiate with them.”

There was a long silence, and then the Chief said, “You’re still a hostage?”

“Yes,” she said tightly. “Of course.”

He made a grunting acknowledgement. “Did they force you to contact us?”

How could she answer that? She was being held under duress. “They want to negotiate.”

“Yes, I know, Esmé,” he said. “But you see, we don’t.”

She wasn’t sure she understood him. This had to be a bluff. “Of course you do,” she said. “What will it cost you?”

“Time,” he said too quickly for her satisfaction. “Resources. Money. All of which are in short supply.”

Her breath caught. She’d heard those words before. She didn’t like them. Or the reasonable tone he was using.

Or what he was implying.

“Do you value my life so cheaply?” she asked.

“Esmé.” Now he sounded patronizing. “This isn’t cheap. Every scenario will cost more than . . . ahem . . . um . . . well, you’ve made this very calculation yourself.”

She froze.

Bastard. He was using her own words against her.

What is one life? She would say. Especially one that had cost so many others? We could imprison that life, spend precious resources on it, feed it, sustain it, and get nothing for it. Or we could make sure it doesn’t cost us any more than it already has.

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” she said, then wished she could take the words back. They sounded defensive.

“I know,” the Chief said. “You’re collateral damage. These people who believe that crime solves everything—well, you have to understand. We must deal with them in the most efficient way possible.”

“I don’t have to understand anything,” she snapped.

“Oh, Esmé,” he said. “I know you understand. This is your policy, after all.”

And then the signal cut out. She looked at the hostage taker. He looked at her.

This was a joke, something done to teach her a lesson, something that would end right now.

“What do you plan to do?” she asked him.

He shook his head, sighed. “They’ve barred us from Pavonne, and we can’t go to Latica now. There’s nowhere really close, and you don’t keep this ship stocked.”

She didn’t. It was for short journeys only.

And executions, of course.

“So,” he said, sounding defeated already. “I guess we’re going to have to figure out what we have, figure out how long it’ll take to get outside the colonies, figure out what it’ll take to get there.”

More fuel than they had. More food than they had. She knew that, but she wasn’t going to tell him.

His gaze met hers. She sensed panic, and the beginnings of conviction.

“I guess,” he said, “it’s like the Chief said. It’s a matter of resources—and in that instance, some lives are worth more than others.”

And some were worth nothing at all.

She sat back in the execution cell and closed her eyes.

It’s math, really, she used to say when someone confronted her about her reputation as a brutal hanging judge. When you do the math, you always make the best decision.


Except when you’re not the one making the decision.

Like right now.

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