When you ask, you don’t expect a straightforward answer.
You’ve been told only half-truths and outright lies since this all began. But really, there’s nowhere else for you to go. You’re not equipped to lead this organization, not yet. All of the agents swarming to base following the events in Stalsk-12 seem to know who you are, but you’re treated as nothing more than a liability. You’re not the boss here—you don’t have the experience. You just keep getting in the way.
When you think about it a little longer, you realize there probably is another version of you who’s the boss, running this operation far beyond your sight or reach.
This whole operation is a temporal pincer.
Yours. You’re only halfway there.
You ask Ives, not really expecting him to know the answer, not expecting him to tell you even if he does.
“Tenth of October, 2016,” Ives grunts out, heaving a large lidded crate from floor to shelf. He bends back down and reaches for another.
You open your mouth to respond but find yourself at somewhat of a loss. You were prepared to further argue your case for the truth; you don’t quite know what to do with the actual answer.
“What—really?” you manage to say.
“‘Course,” Ives replies, continuing to go about his work. “Everyone knows the date Tenet was founded. It’s in the handbook.”
You blink. “There’s a handbook?”
Another crate in his hands, Ives turns to you. Regards you with a deeply unamused look. You’re not trying to be funny.
Ives shoves the crate onto an upper shelf. “It’s where the name comes from,” he explains. When he finishes with the last of the crates, he meets your gaze again. “Tenet?” he says. “Spells ten-ten forward and backward?”
You get it, but you don’t have a response. You’re not sure how it’s relevant. Ives narrows his eyes, nods. “Makes sense. I always figured that was one of Neil’s stupid jokes.”
He’s still talking as he moves down the hall, onto the next task. You follow him.
“You pair of twits could never get your dates right. Couldn’t agree on the American way or the European way. Day-month-year, month-day-year. Took ages to sort out the filing system.”
Ives barks a command into another room as you pass by. “Ten-ten though,” he waves his finger in the air. “October 10th. That’s the same both ways.”
You’ve reached what appears to be a large supply closet—apparently Ives’s intended destination. He turns to face you, eyes you with blatant suspicion. “Why is it you’re asking anyway?”
The words ring in your head like a flash bang, detonated too close. You have a future in the past.
Because it’s the only thing you’ve learned, and there’s nowhere else for you to go. Nowhere forward, at least.
Because if Neil’s death is a fixed point in time, surely his introduction to Tenet is one too.
They say it’s risky, to stay inverted for so long. You’ve already done it though, haven’t you? Before. Now. It’s all the same.
It’s not a shipping container this time, and you consider yourself lucky for that.
There’s a cabin deep in Siberia, Tenet-controlled, where you won’t be found by anyone who doesn’t know its exact coordinates. You think of it as taking yourself off the map, to give yourself—your forward self, the self you will be—the opportunity to work uninhibited, without any risk of overlapping temporal conflict from you.
You figure if you’re ever needed, both you and Tenet know where to find you.
But no one ever comes.
You spend three years and eight months inverted.
You’re used to being alone. You’ve worked as part of a team before, have led soldiers, but you’ve always kept yourself distant. Professional. Close partnership was only a recent development.
So you read. You keep yourself in shape. You have a DVD player. You have electricity and running water. The internet works. You don’t think about it too hard, any of it. Somehow, the cabin was built inverted. You’ll have to remember to do that for yourself, sometime in the future. You realize there’s a lot you’ll have to remember now. You find a notebook. You start a journal.
You write the date in the upper corner of the page—01/04/20. You’ve been inverted for almost six months now. You think back to what Ives told you. You cross out the date and write January 4, 2020. For clarity.
You record everything you can remember, forward and back, starting with the Kyiv opera house. What was available to you, who was there. Locations, dates. You sketch out the timeline as best as you understand it. You’ll need to know these things again one day, to put everything in place. To ensure it all happens as it must. As it has already happened. Won’t it happen the same way, regardless of your actions?
You try not to think about it too hard.
The cabin is stocked with physics textbooks and philosophical treatises. Academic papers regarding temporal paradoxes, workbooks filled with logic problems for you to solve. You even come across a printed copy of Neil’s master’s thesis. It makes you smile.
You train yourself to no longer think of time as linear; learn to evaluate it instead as a complete dimension. Like space, existing all at once. You’re not sure that’s scientifically correct, even after all your studies, but it helps you to understand it, in your own way. You decide to ask Neil about it when you find him.
You do the math in your head. Once you’ve reached the end of your inversion, after you’ve lived forward through time once more, you’ll have spent seven years and four months trying to figure out how to save him.
When you were inverted, you learned about the trolley problem in a book discussing moral philosophy. You still think about that page, sometimes. About the illustrated men, bound and doomed on the tracks of their hypothetical.
If you could pull a lever and put another man in Neil’s place—if you could make the conscious choice to let that person die instead of Neil, would you? Would you take the life of an innocent, just to save the man you love?
Would Neil forgive you for that? Could you ever forgive yourself?
You don’t think about it too hard. You’ll make yourself sick.
There’s another phrase you often think about: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one. The night Neil tells you it’s a quote from Star Trek, you laugh together, drunk on three bottles of cabernet and each other.
It takes you three years and eight months to find him.
It takes you five weeks to kiss him. Only four to love him.
You’re a smart man. You knew what it meant when Neil looked at you like that in Mumbai, in Oslo, for the very last time on that goddamned field in Stalsk-12, before he turned away and walked to his death with one more riddle and a grin.
After all you’ve seen, all he can never know, you should probably be more discerning about tying yourself to a dead man. But you refuse to hold yourself back from what you want, from the happiness you caught only a glimpse of—the same happiness you now have, to keep for all the intervening years until then.
Above all else, it’s Neil’s happiness you refuse to deny—not when it’s so limited, so precious to you. Cupped in the palm of your hand, held inside your heart.
You’re so happy together. You have so much time together, for each other.
It’s just the two of you in the beginning, building Tenet out of nothing. Laying the foundation for what it will be in the future. You study the mechanics of inversion together, the science behind the turnstiles. You recruit other agents. You complete missions until it feels seamless to have Neil at your side.
You love him like it’s easy, like it’s irreversible. You love him day-month-year, month-day-year, and the two of you never do decide which way is best. It doesn’t matter though, does it? Not when it all ends the same.
(You love him all the same).
Neil saves you at the opera house on the 14th. He returns to you that night, and you fall asleep in each other’s arms. You can’t bear to let him go.
The next morning, you say goodbye to him for the last time.
You never told him what happened, what’s going to happen in Stalsk-12. You couldn’t bring yourself to do it—couldn’t tolerate the thought of Neil carrying that burden to his own grave.
If Neil has suspicions about his fate, he never asks. He goes out the door to meet you again for the first time with a wink and a smile and one last kiss. Even after everything, he lets you keep your only remaining secret.
You’ve spent seven years and four months trying to figure out how to save him, and now you know the answer. There isn’t one.
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, the one. You. Ending the world won’t save Neil. And he would never let you anyway.
What’s happened’s happened.
So you let him go.
You had three years to cope with Neil’s death. Another four to compartmentalize it. You say goodbye, and when it’s time for you to become the Protagonist again, you do what needs to be done.
The Sator mission, for all its complexity, has been prepared and planned for inside and out, forward and backward, for close to a decade. You know there are several smaller operations that must occur parallel to the main timeline—operations that keep you far away from Neil and the other, greener version of yourself, marching through the timeline you’ve already lived.
You know it all works out because you’re alive to prove it.
You can’t remove yourself from Stalsk-12 permanently, however. You’re the boss now, and you’re needed on site post-op.
You wait until you know the younger version of yourself is gone, en route to his years of inverted hibernation. A chopper, sleeker than the rugged Chinooks sitting idle outside the base, returns you to Stalsk-12, the place that has served as backdrop for all your worst nightmares. It looks exactly the same as you remember it—how could you ever forget?
You swallow down the bile that crawls its way up your throat.
You search for one of your appointed officers, someone available to sit down with you for a debrief. Ives is gone—disappeared along with his portion of the algorithm. You wonder if you’ll ever see him again. Wheeler is otherwise engaged, mapping out the details of the completed pincer movement somewhere, or better yet, getting some much-needed rest. Neil is—
The first officer you encounter is Laurel, and you exchange words about the current situation. The number of fatalities, how many are injured. Who’s inverted, who’s not. Where the cleanup crew is required, the archivists, the collection specialists. If extraction is necessary.
You ask how you can help and are directed to another tent at the opposite end of the base.
You pass a row of bodies lined up in the dirt on the way, red and blue armbands glaring in the sun—spatters of red blood on uniforms, pallid blue faces staring back up at you. A white sheet billows in the wind as a Tenet agent shakes it out and drapes it carefully over one of the bodies.
You don’t let yourself look. Guilt sharpens its claws inside your chest, but you can’t let it escape—not here, not yet.
You stand out as you make your way across the base, the only person not in uniform. No one seems to care as much as you do, offering you cordial nods as you pass by. You can’t meet anyone’s gaze.
You’re relieved when you finally push aside the flaps of the tent and duck under its cool shadow.
Until you see what’s inside.
Bags thrown together in a haphazard pile, taken from the agents who are no longer alive to carry them. The supplies zipped inside will need to be processed, distributed to other agents or restocked. The personal items will be attended to, returned to families or friends. Everything that’s left will be burned along with the rest of the recovered evidence of what took place here.
The detritus of a coming war—postponed but never ended.
For seven years you’ve asked yourself how to defeat a future that always knows the outcome. How can a war be won when it’s only fought in retrospect?
You don’t know the solution. You’re beginning to suspect there isn’t one.
You think about Neil before you can stop yourself. You wonder if his bag is somewhere in that pile. If his body is even recoverable. What will happen to him now.
It used to be an enticing thought problem for Neil, puzzling out what would become of an inverted body if left to nature’s devices. It couldn’t carry on indefinitely back through time—that sort of anomaly would have been discovered far outside the founding of Tenet. Would it just blink out of existence, when the universe could no longer support the paradox?
Perhaps it will be Neil who solves the riddle after all. The thought provides you no comfort.
You stand in hopeless, motionless silence for so long you draw the attention of the agent who’s been tasked with sorting through the bags. You hardly even registered his presence.
He’s weighing a bag in each hand, as if comparing the two, when he glances over his shoulder and spots you. A grin begins to spread across his face.
He says, “Ah, there you are, darling! I thought you might turn up sooner or later.”
You don’t believe in ghosts. Even before Tenet, you adhered to rationality, to a fault. Now, it is the only way to understand the world in which you operate.
But there is no rational explanation for Neil to be standing in front of you now, alive and breathing and smiling as he calls you darling, unmarked by death or blood or time.
He looks exactly the same as you remember him—how could you ever forget?
He is the same as you remember him, because it’s the same Neil you said goodbye to less than a month ago.
It can’t be possible. Neil never lived this far forward in time—you were there for some of the last moments of his life, when he told you about your future in the past and asked you to let him go before you could ever really know what that meant.
It can’t be possible, unless...unless Neil hasn’t inverted yet.
Unless he still has to complete his final pass in the mission.
The very thought of it takes your knees out from under you. You collapse down onto a nearby bench, left askew in the rush to move out.
You can’t. You can’t you can’t you can’t. You can’t say goodbye to him again. You can’t send him knowingly to his death for a second time. You can’t. You won’t. You—
Neil begins to speak again.
“Hey, are you still carrying around my spare contacts kit?” he asks. “Someone grabbed my pack in all the confusion before I could invert. It’s the one with that little antique coin we picked up in Lucknow, you know—”
Still intent on sorting through the bags, Neil raises his free hand and makes a circle with his forefinger and thumb, holding it over his shoulder for you to see. You miss what he says next, so intent on staring at his hand, at the way he moves, how alive he is. He picks up two more bags, inspects them, and tosses them both aside with an impatient sound.
“—now I can’t seem to find it again, so I don’t have my extra set. It was so dusty out there, I can’t see a bloody thing.”
Seemingly giving up on his search, Neil finally turns to look at you. Whatever it is he sees on your face then has him going rigid. His tireless half-smile—so buoyant, so achingly familiar to you—immediately drops from his mouth.
“Babe? Are you okay?” he asks. When you don’t respond, his brows furrow deeper in concern. “What’s wrong? Is someone injured? Did someone die?”
With rising hysteria, you can’t help but think, not you.
In three steps Neil is at your side, sinking down onto the hard earth to kneel in front of you. He reaches out, sets his palm tenderly against your cheek. You feel yourself take in a deep, shuddering breath at his touch; you hadn’t even noticed how shallow your breathing had become.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Neil murmurs, crowding in closer. He’s holding your face in both of his hands now, dark, worried eyes flickering nervously between yours. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”
You reach up, fold your hands around his fingers. Unwilling to let him go. “You can’t go back down there,” you manage to get out. “Neil. You can’t invert again.”
He frowns, shaking his head slightly, bewildered. “I-I won’t. I didn’t. I told you, someone grabbed my pack by accident, I didn’t have any of my gear. I got pulled into triage instead. I figured someone else did whatever Ives thought I was needed for...”
His reassurances begin to trail off as you exhale shakily, the full weight of your head falling into the cradle of his hands. It feels like your whole body goes limp with it, all of the terror and disbelief held in the clenched line of your shoulders vanishing in an instant. Your eyes fall shut as you lean in, letting your forehead come to rest against Neil’s. A single tear falls from your lashes, landing cool against your cheek.
Neil doesn’t say anything at all. He doesn’t ask any questions, doesn’t search for an explanation. He just stays there with you, holding you, breathing slowly in and out, allowing you the time you need.
When your heartbeat has evened, when you’re in control enough to face this new reality you’ve found yourself in, you open your eyes. Neil is gazing steadily back at you.
After a long moment, he speaks.
“You know where my pack is, don’t you,” he says quietly.
Of course Neil has already come to a conclusion about what just unfolded before him. He never needed to be told the important things outright—he always just knew.
Just as he’s always known you.
It’s not a question, and he’s not expecting an answer. Still, you nod your head silently between his hands.
“You thought it was me down there,” Neil whispers, speaking the truth you’ve known since the beginning and have kept hidden away. “All these years...you thought you watched me die right in front of you.”
Neil’s eyes shine, liquid and hurt.
Not for himself, not for the years of dishonesty, but for you. For this wound you were forced to endure; for this scar you’ve carried in secret for so long, one that was never truly allowed to heal.
Neil says, “And you still let me go.”
Again, you can only nod in his hands. Neil thumbs away your tears.
There are no words left to say. Neil murmurs your name once, lovingly, devotedly, as he kisses your lips and wraps you up in his arms, holding you tight against him. You sink easily into his embrace, an impossible warmth, a comfort you never expected to have again. You hold the back of his head, your fingers threading through his hair as you cling to him, your face buried in the curve of his neck.
In Neil’s arms, in the safety of his understanding, you’re finally given the chance to grieve.
Occam’s razor, a long-held tenet of heuristic philosophy, states that when two explanations account for all the facts, the simpler one is more likely to be correct.
You considered every possibility, every permutation, every improbable branch of time that could bring Neil safely out of the hypocenter. What you never allowed yourself to consider, in all the years and months you spent trying to save him, was that Neil was never there in the first place.
You’re lying naked together in your bed, Neil leaning lazily back against you, your arm slung across his chest, keeping him close. You’re trying to remember something he said to you—nearly a lifetime ago for you, only days ago for him. You keep finding yourself distracted.
“You know,” Neil says casually. He’s holding your hand, toying with your fingers in that absentminded, affectionate way he has. “You never mentioned how much more attractive you were when you were younger.”
He lets the comment hang for about three seconds before he tilts his head back against your shoulder. He grins up at you.
You laugh, and Neil laughs with you. You turn your head, pressing your lips to his in a warm, wet slide. Your arms and legs tangle as you tumble further into the sheets, into each other, into the future, together.
It was about having faith in the mechanics of the world—that’s what Neil said you, all those years ago.
And now you find yourself beginning to believe.