Author’s note: Thanks to Kallie, whose reblog and remark inspired this piece. And I have to admit a hat-tip to the unforgettable Tabico’s Sub Routine for influencing the atmosphere and language.

Kallie blinked as the cube… shifted. She’d been working on the strange program for over an hour, convinced it held the keys to the Institute’s encrypted databases. The urgency that accompanied breaking into their secure network, even via a burner laptop in a location that couldn’t be traced back to her, had her stumbling over keystrokes at first, but the tide of calm focus that accompanied her descent into problem-solving had quickly washed it aside.

Now there was only the colourful pattern. It responded to various key commands and sequences by rotating along various axes, by changing colours, but it had remained a cube the entire time. Kallie was getting frustrated, wondering if she could trust her source after all: the person she knew only as alias KounterAgynt611 had told her in so many cryptic words where to find the cube, and hinted at its importance, but had given no indication how difficult it would be to decipher.

But then the cube changed into something else. Kallie’s fingers froze above the keys. That was the most significant change she’d seen yet… what had she done to cause it? Anything? Was it a factor of time? She glanced at her watch, hung over the monitor in an old habit that let her keep track of how long she’d spent probing a sensitive system that would eventually catch on to her.

Sixty-eight minutes; she couldn’t think of anything particularly meaningful about that.

She went back over her last dozen keystrokes, or tried to: admittedly she’d been in the zone, typing without thinking. She stared at the cube, which was a cube once more, slowly cycling through a rainbow of colours—but were the colours pulsing slightly, now? Had they always done that? Kallie wasn’t sure. An hour of staring at the screen, barely blinking, it was entirely possible her eyes were playing tricks on her.

She tried a key combination… nothing. She tried another, and the cube rotated ninety degrees. It had a slowly-accelerating motion to its animation, as though it begrudged being spurred in the wrong direction. The colours shaded from bright green-yellow into orange, then red, then magenta; ridiculous thought, but it was like the cube was angry at her. Kallie made a face at herself, but if the cube was meant as an interface, it was entirely possible it represented different states by different colours: someone who was appropriately trained would understand what they meant.

Kallie tried the previous sequence of commands again. The cube shrank slightly, and darkened through violet to deep blue. That didn’t make much sense. Slightly worried that she was close to engaging a defence mechanism, Kallie tried the same set of commands a third time. She hunched her shoulders and squinted, as though bracing for a blow.

The cube began to shrink slowly again… and then burst outward into a shifting pattern, cycling through the entire rainbow. It was dazzling, moving swiftly and fluidly across the screen, like some kind of amoeba, and seemed like never before to have a life of its own.

Kallie heard a gasp without registering it was hers, lost in the intricate patterns expanding and contracting on the screen. Her fingers had relaxed, resting on the keyboard, her whole body very still except for her breathing, which deepened to match the rhythm that pulsed hidden under the whirling shapes and colours. Kallie just sat and watched as whatever she’d awakened grew in fascinating complexity.

When the pulsing shape reflected off Kallie’s wide, glassy eyes, when a thread of drool detached from her slack lips and landed on the back of her hand, she began to type again.

But this time, instead of entering commands, she followed them.

Without the interference of her deeply hypnotized mind, her fingers entered new information into the Institute’s databases, information about Kallie and everything she knew about KounterAgynt611.

The Institute didn’t need to hunt down hackers when it could make them turn themselves in.