I am trying to re-find a short story I have but distant memories of. I probably read it 8-10 years ago, and I don't remember much about the age but it seemed a bit old. Not sure if I read it physically or digitally; it could be either but I think it was physical. It's centered around a word game called 'Ghost;' here's an explanation of the game, though the story might call it something different.

There are two beings, possibly aliens of different species (but critically from different origins) who are stranded in a spacepod from a spaceship catastrophe or in some way stuck with each other and limited resources. There's only enough resources in some way for one of them to survive (maybe one of them could eat the other to survive?), so they agree to play this game Ghost and the winner survives.

The game is organized by the computer with them, which plugs into the pair and will immediately kill the loser upon a clear victory for one or the other. The game proceeds, and they're both pretty good at it (they consider themselves to be word experts) but soon a critical point approaches. One of the players adds a letter, and the other doesn't think it will make a word. They challenge (by the game rules you have to build towards some sort of word), and it turns out that, stemming from a language/culture difference, this is a word that one of them considers to be valid and the other doesn't. In the end the computer with them decides who's right, killing the other (I don't remember who won).

The story ends in a courtroom a while later, with a trial for the survivor and the computer. I don't remember the exact verdict for the living being, but the computer is charged very seriously for allowing this to happen/facilitating it (and maybe for making the wrong decision?) and the computer is consigned to some very long and painful life, such as 1000 years as a grocery store register.

Can anyone recall a story that matches this description or is similar?

  • 1
    Hi, welcome to the site. Did you read this in physical or digital form? Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 23:41
  • Thank you! I'm not sure, I believe physical but it could be either.
    – Beige
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 23:43

1 Answer 1


William Tenn's The Ghost Standard.

This article discusses:

This is set as legal dilemma resulting from a case of cannibalism aboard a lifeboat: Juan Kydd, a human, & Tuezuzim, "a sapient lobstermorph" alien, both equally skilled computer programmers, are stranded on a lifeboat after a deep space shipwreck. Without food. Only one of them can survive to rescue by eating the other.

To decide, they play the word game "Ghost", with ship's computer acting as referee & executor. Juan wins, & during trial later, the galactic legalese gets a new definition of when an intelligence - alien, machine, whatever - is legally "human": "Intelligence has always been extremely difficult to define precisely, but it will be here & henceforth understood to involve the capacity to understand & play the terrestrial game of Ghost."

  • 2
    I'm trying to find an actual copy I can read, but that matches perfectly from the description. Thank you so much!
    – Beige
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 0:05
  • Glad to help. My first link is to all the places it's been published, by the way.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 0:07
  • 3
    @Beige You can read it in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction which can be borrowed (for free but registration required) from the Internet Archive: archive.org/details/playboybookofsci0000unse
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 2:48
  • I also found a copy here. This is indeed the story I was thinking of, and a great one at that.
    – Beige
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 5:53

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