"Master ... master."
The soothing voice dragged the boy from his daydream and back to reality. He opened his eyes.
"Master, there is a time and a place for daydreams," the voice reassured him. "Class isn't one of them."
The boy resumed his classwork, with Omega lingering at the back of his mind.
He had been doing the work a long time, writing constantly, without halting. A break would seem logical at this point, but still he continued writing, never stopping - just like he'd been told to.
Around him, many other people were also writing, never stopping - just like they had been told to. This was the way it was meant to be.
A single adult sat at the front of the room. There was a time when he would have been called a teacher. But now he was a supervisor, not really responsible for education.
The boy's hand was tired. This wasn't a new experience. It happened every day. But this time it was different. A feeling inside that he could not place. He sensed Omega stirring at the back of his mind. It had detected the sudden change in his mood, too. What was this feeling?
The boy searched through the massive databank that was his mind - a sea of information, much of it useless. But among the data there was one word that seemed to perfectly describe his current state of mind. Annoyance ...
Slowly, the boy put up his hand, ignoring Omega's protests.
The supervisor did not respond. He was in the middle of a daydream. The boy sighed and waved his hand.
Again, the supervisor did not respond. The boy stood up and spoke.
"Sir," he said loudly, "may we have a break?"
Later that day, the supervisor sat in front of his manager, who was sifting through papers.
"Well, looks like everything is in order. Is there anything unusual that you would like to report?"
The supervisor shifted uncomfortably. The manager asked him this question every day. Every day he said no. That was the way it was meant to be.
"Well," he said, uncertainly. "There was something."
The manager looked up, surprised.
"One of the students," said the supervisor, "asked me for a break."
"Is this true?" the inspector asked, not believing what he had just heard.
The supervisor nodded.
"Keep us updated," the manager frowned, and the supervisor left the room.
Far away, the director swivelled his chair. He was head of Omega Inc., which was as good as being head director of the world. There was a knock on his door and one of his many informers walked in.
"You won't believe what I just heard," the informer said. "A boy asked a question."
This might seem a harmless thing to do, but in the director's world, no one asked questions.
"I know," said the director. "I'm dealing with it. In fact, I'm dealing with him."
The boy woke up. He was in the dormitory, surrounded by other boys. Omega was silent, and had been for some time. He got out of his bed, walked slowly towards the door and opened it.
A woman was standing there and smiled as he stepped out. It surprised him. No one had ever smiled at him before. He felt obliged to respond and strained hard to form his face into a smile.
"That wasn't so hard now, was it?" said the woman, still smiling. "Without Omega, it doesn't take much effort to feel or think what you want to."
"You don't have Omega?" the boy asked, slightly alarmed. He thought everyone had Omega ... that everyone was born with it. He looked puzzled, but the woman explained: "In the beginning, Omega was advertised as a simple upgrade; an upgrade that allowed you to store massive amounts of data and solve puzzles in the blink of an eye. It allowed you to dream perfect dreams and be free of nightmares forever.
"It replaced all forms of entertainment at the time. Man's mind became a machine - and machines exist to be controlled.
"Omega Inc. could control everyone's thoughts, everyone's feelings. It's in complete control of everyone and everything.
"But this is changing. Around the world, children like you are beginning to think for themselves again. Omega will try to stop it, but its people can't stop anything on this scale.
"We've arranged for you to be moved to our base in Vladivostok next week. Now I must go."
She turned to leave and then quickly turned back.
"Oh, and one more thing. If they come for you, don't turn back. Don't look at them. If you look at them, you're dead. Just run, run for your life."
The boy thought about what she said and then returned to his bed.
That night, he had his first nightmare.
The next day was uneventful. The boy decided not to draw any more attention to himself and continued to do what he had always done, what he had been told to do.
Yet secretly his mind was racing. Thoughts, emotions, ran through his mind like animals released from a cage unrestricted - free. By this time he was sure that Omega had left his mind completely and he savoured every rebellious thought it would not have permitted.
Another emotion filled his body - a feeling of excitement. As hard as he tried, he couldn't disguise his thoughts and feelings.
The supervisor was keeping a close eye on the boy because his manager had told him to. So, instead of daydreaming, he sat and watched him. The boy could feel the supervisor's gaze on him, but didn't dare look up. He just kept writing, writing.
The frantic exchange in the boy's mind must have shown on his face because the supervisor stood up and started walking towards him. Occasionally he would stop to inspect what other children had written, nod, and then carry on walking slowly - ever so slowly - towards the back of the room where the boy was sitting.
The boy forced himself to stay calm, but his eyes darted towards the supervisor, then back to his work. The supervisor's eyes were still fixed upon him. He stopped to admire the work of the child in front, who, like everyone else, was still writing away like a machine.
Everyone, that is, except the boy.
Suddenly the supervisor's head snapped round to look at him. The boy sat there, mouth open, no pen in his hand. He grabbed the boy and frogmarched him out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The children did not pause or even blink in reaction to this spectacle. Instead, they continued writing, like they had always done. The way it was meant to be.
The supervisor dragged the boy into the room and pushed him down onto a chair. The manager and government inspector were sitting behind the desk. The supervisor stood to attention behind the chair.
"So, boy," the inspector leered, "the supervisor told me you are having problems in class."
Behind him, the supervisor nodded. "Is this true?"
"Yes," the boy replied. They all exchanged glances.
The boy thought desperately for a second, just for a second. Then he knew what to say.
"Omega malfunctioned," he said confidently.
The adults murmured among themselves, surprised. They had never heard of this happening before. But then, Omega was nothing but software, and all software, can malfunction.
"It seems the only rational explanation," the manager said to the others.
Their initial disbelief had been quickly replaced with logical deduction. After all, how could a young boy conquer Omega? Impossible, unthinkable ... In fact, he would be punished for even thinking it. They could do nothing, but believe what they had just heard.
"You may go," said the inspector.
Although the boy had successfully fooled those who seemed to be in charge, he had not fooled those really in control.
The board of directors sat around a large table with an enormous floating screen in the centre. They could not believe what they had just heard. The head director stood up to address his colleagues.
"If we do not react to this threat, our influence will begin to slip. In fact, many say it has already. Around the world people like this boy are overcoming Omega's control. This cannot be allowed to continue. I propose immediate lethal action to neutralise the threat. All those in favour ...?"
All raised their hands.
That night, the boy had another nightmare, like the night before. That face ... those eyes ...
Suddenly he woke up. There was a sound, growing louder. After a while, he realised it was in his head.
It was Omega.
"Alpha unit, move to location 4-16."
Gone was the soothing voice, and in its place Omega spoke with a harsh, metallic bark. The boy heard the sound of boots thudding on the floor outside. Panicking, he looked round for somewhere to hide. The sound of boots became louder, then suddenly stopped.
They were outside.
As the door burst open, the boy quickly jumped inside a wardrobe.
"Alpha unit, move to location 4-16," Omega repeated in the horrible, metallic voice. The wardrobe door was beginning to open.
"Shut up Omega, shut up," the boy repeated to himself.
"Alpha unit, move to location 4-16."
The boy could see a masked face, with stone-cold eyes.
"Alpha unit, move to location 4-16." The face was like the one in his nightmare. It was coming closer and closer.
"Shut up, Omega, shut up, shut up, shut up!"
Omega fell silent.
But the face continued to come and was almost upon him. Through the gap he could see the glint of a gun barrel.
"Stop, stop!" the boy screamed and pleaded inside his head to the pitiless face.
The face froze abruptly.
Slowly, the boy climbed out of the wardrobe, walked past the frozen masked men and into the corridor ...
... where the woman was waiting.
Stories from the other finalists