This ironic and suspenseful study of crime and romantic attachment in the space age begins with a single convict speaking to himself in solitary confinement. The prisoner speculates bitterly about the unhappy secrets which he may take with him to the gallows, for he has been sentenced to die in the next day or two. The guard brings in the prison doctor to see him, and as they discuss his case, the convict maintains that, though he has confessed to murder, during his trial he came to believe that he was betrayed and placed in a false position. As a young and somewhat idealistic physician, he had been impelled to kill a woman’s husband when the man was portrayed to him as a vicious and insensitive brute who had a host of girlfriends on the side; he was goaded into murder for the woman’s sake, and after they were married she testified on his behalf when he was brought to trial. During the proceedings, however, he became convinced that his wife actually had been scheming with a young lawyer to implicate him more seriously, much as she managed to convince the court of her selfless loyalty to the condemned man.
The convict, who at one time was so swept away by infatuation that he could kill a man for the sake of his beloved, is troubled still by conflicting impulses prompted by lingering affection and the desire for vengeance. He does not actually see his wife in person, however, for the warden brings in the representative of a scientific agency who has been authorized to make an unusual offer. Final preparations have been made to launch a manned spaceflight which will travel beyond the outer reaches of the solar system; the chances that any astronaut could return safely, however, have been estimated at one in one hundred. Ordinary volunteers can hardly be considered, but the government has been willing to waive execution of the convict should he agree to participate. The prisoner seizes this opportunity with alacrity, and as the second act begins he finds himself in a cylindrical chamber inside a space vessel.
To accompany the prisoner, a second convict has been selected who originally had been an engineer and an atomic scientist. As they watch the earth recede in the distance they are informed, by an announcer at ground control, that in the next three minutes, when they reach a distance of five million miles, communication will no longer be possible; as a realization of their chasmic isolation from all that has been familiar sweeps over them, each man is brought to express a deeply felt regret at having brought upon himself this new and unusual form of banishment. When the second convict learns that a woman was behind his companion’s crime, he discloses that he killed four women in succession and was discovered only when a fifth attempt inexplicably failed. Unlike the first convict, his motivations combined mercenary and altruistic interests to an odd extent; he had arranged to inherit large sums from his victims in order to provide...
(The entire section is 1210 words.)