Chapter 1:

Mixed Bag

Slacker Squad: Why Work When You Can Cheat?

‘The following students please remain with me after class. Maita Saburo…’ Tanaka sensei began calling out. Bookmark here

Here it came. Makoto took a deep breath and closed his eyes. What had his mom always told him? Bookmark here

'Nishimura Masao'Bookmark here

Expect nothing, yet be prepared for everything. So simple yet strong. Bookmark here

'Suzuki Kenta'Bookmark here

Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, the lived human experiences were never as consequential as they seemed to be in moments of passion. Besides, failure was only part of being hum-Bookmark here

'Kusumoto Takashi'Bookmark here

Okay who was he kidding? His mom had never said that. The greatest wisdom she’d imparted to him was that when making fried rice, the rice should always be pre-chilled.Bookmark here

'And Katayama Makoto. Okay, now then, that’ll be all for today everyone, but don’t forget that we have an assignment due Monday. Yamada, that goes for you too. That’s too many times this month you’ve had dentist appointments.'Bookmark here

A single tear rolled down Makoto’s cheek as he smiled dryly. Bookmark here

Bookmark here

Makoto shoved his remaining papers into his backpack and began slugging his way to the teacher’s desk. Curse it all! Fate had finally caught up with him. He couldn’t count on his fingers the number of days he used to jeer at the students being called after class. Seems the accumulated karma decided to finally pounce on him today. Bookmark here

As the called out group of students waited for Tanaka sensei to return, Makoto looked around at his fellow prisoners of war.Bookmark here

Beside him, Saburo Maita was placing his laptop with utmost care into his backpack. He was a slightly chubby guy with thick glasses, and was always furiously typing on his computer during breaks, and even during class sometimes. Makoto had always been a little curious about what his deal was, until one day when he’d casually glanced at Saburo’s screen during a break, and saw what seemed like random keyboard smash gibberish text on a word document editor. He’d decided against questioning him about it.Bookmark here

'Everyone, do not worry,’ proclaimed the boy to Makoto's right. ‘It’s going to be all fine. Why? Because I am here! Bwahahahaha!' Bookmark here

That was Masao Nishimura, a man feared by many and known colloquially as The Terror of Jindai High. His disconnect from reality and pithy one-liner anime quotes were the scariest parts. Now Makoto had no shame in admitting that he enjoyed a good anime on occasion, but this was what happened when too much of the medium got into you. In an alternate world, Masao might have been a normal guy. A world where people wear suspect t-shirts and simp over 2D characters, that is. Without a doubt, a degenerate of the first order. His parents and classmates and his little sister (whose actual existence Makoto had serious doubts about) and the kindly old lady from next door had learned to ignore him.Bookmark here

‘Now now Masao, what we need to place our trust in is the sentient fabric of the universe that holds all meaning together,’ chided a voice coming across from Makoto. ‘What goes around will most definitely come around.’Bookmark here

That voice belonged to Takashi Kusumoto, a shorter boy with a shaved head, with prayer beads in hand and eyes tight shut. Word from the grapevine revealed that he had gone solo backpacking throughout Asia in search of an ultimate purpose, when his dog Kaiba passed away. He claimed to have come back as an enlightened being. Definitely a bit more “spiritual” than the average person, he supposed, whatever that meant. Woke? That was debatable. He did always smell of incense for some reason though.Bookmark here

And finally there was Kenta Suzuki, a bit of a scrawny kid with a sickly face, waiting silently just like Makoto. Makoto didn’t know much about him personally, but he appeared to be a pretty average, run of the mill type of guy. He wasn’t very talkative, and probably didn’t like to bring attention to himself. Pretty respectable traits compared to the rest of the group, if one asked Makoto.Bookmark here

‘So, uh…’ began Makoto, but stopped abruptly.Bookmark here

Without warning, the ambience of the classroom had gotten darker. The temperature almost seemed to drop a couple degrees and … was that boss music playing in the background? Actually no, that was just the student orchestra on the second floor ‘practicing’. But nonetheless, what was this menacing aura he sensed?Bookmark here

Makoto searched around until he discovered a humanoid figure, almost hidden by the dark lighting, standing by the classroom door. But Makoto could identify him immediately. What was the infamous class networker and overall snake, Orochi Suto, doing loitering around these parts? To witness a funeral and rub his hands with the ashes? Bookmark here

To Orochi, everything had to be a transaction. He was the very embodiment of “time is money” and carried himself like a sly businessman, or at least that was what the school rumor mill said. There must be at least some truth to that claim, or how else could Orochi have become the student council treasurer, despite being a first year student? Makoto could not help but think of the poor upperclassmen who had to compete with Orochi. Who knows what he’d done to pull that feat off. Bookmark here

Orochi caught Makoto’s distant look and sneered right back. Bookmark here

Tanaka sensei shuffled quickly back in the classroom from whatever she was doing, slamming the door a little too hard as she rushed back to her desk. She dropped on her chair and spun towards them, sighing. 'Alright, I have to attend a drinking par- uh, I have some work in an hour so I’ll make this quick with no sugar coating. Remember that test you took three days ago?’Bookmark here

Makoto had tried to forget.Bookmark here

‘... well, you better remember 'cause y’all got failing scores.'Bookmark here

Well, a real surprise right there. So what was it gonna be, like a couple of extra make up assignments? Or maybe just a quick little talk on the importance of studying?Bookmark here

‘This puts the distance between you and summer school by one more test failure,’ she continued.Bookmark here

Wait, how badly did they all fail? Well not that it mattered to Makoto, for surely he would not fail any more exams thrown his way.Bookmark here

'So for the time being I’m making y’all into a study group,’ concluded Tanaka sensei, ‘with Orochi here as your mentor.'Bookmark here

Huh? Makoto took a hot second to process these orders. A study group with these imbeciles? And with Orochi as their mentor? He had to get out of this one.Bookmark here

'Tanaka sensei, I appreciate you looking out for us, but I’m afraid that a study group might not be the best solution,' Makoto suggested, putting on his best silver tongue. ‘One must individually take responsibility for one's action, and push oneself to improve upon his or her past. Perhaps we can all take this incident as a warning and be let go?’Bookmark here

Tanaka sensei nodded thoughtfully.Bookmark here

He could barely conceal his grin. This was too easy.Bookmark here

...Bookmark here

Makoto trudged his way to the library to meet his new study group. His persuasion stat wasn’t high enough, apparently. Oh well, he deserved this for actually failing. Tanaka sensei had given them the requirement of meeting at least twice a week to study with the Orochi’s guidance, while also writing a report each week detailing how they’d improved their study habits. What a pain in the arse. Makoto already knew how to study, he’d just slipped up on this one exam. Quite the slip up it looked like though. Bookmark here

Makoto propped open the door to one of the library’s conference rooms, which Orochi had booked ahead of time for them. Seems like he was the last one in. Bookmark here

Orochi stood up and smiled. ‘Well, let’s welcome the final member of our group, Makoto Katayama!’Bookmark here

‘Screw off,’ responded Makoto.Bookmark here

‘You started sounding like Takashi back there, all philosophical’, continued Orochi, ‘but for someone who dislikes study groups, I’m surprised you actually showed up for the first meeting today.'Bookmark here

'Well, I’m a man of my promise and integrity,' rebounded Makoto. 'Unlike yourself. All I hear from you are those hsss’s.'Bookmark here

'Woah woah, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?’ scorned Orochi, narrowing his eyes. ‘It is in our best interests to remember who is at the apex of the food chain here.'Bookmark here

'Come on guys,' mediated Takashi, 'let us remember to procure our engagements in peace, for that will make the world a better place.’Bookmark here

Makoto made a mental note never to do a solo trip in Asia. He scoured the room to find a place to sit. Saburo was typing away on his computer. Takashi was sitting cross-legged, meditatively. And Masao was weaving some hand signs.Bookmark here

He sighed internally and took a seat beside Kenta, the (probably) only other sane one here.Bookmark here

‘So what’s the quest for today, my homies?’ Masao asked, tying some kind of headband on his forehead.Bookmark here

Makoto stared absentmindedly. He still couldn’t believe his luck - of all the people he could be stuck in a room with, it had to be this group. He could’ve been existing happily back at home, playing video games or doing calisthenics with the neighborhood grandpa.Bookmark here

Orochi pulled out some sheets of paper with a grand flourish from his investment bank branded backpack and started handing them out. Bookmark here

Makoto found himself thinking back to the exam hall. If only he could’ve been as dynamic as those two paper swapping business tycoons, he wou-Bookmark here

Hol’ up.Bookmark here

Dramatic. Paper. Swapping? What was this reminding Makoto of? Orochi elegantly tossed the paper to Makoto in a smooth, practiced motion as if he were chucking a frisbee.Bookmark here

It could not be … Bookmark here

‘That’s a mighty fine form Orochi, to pull it off on the test must have required good practice.’ Bookmark here

‘You don’t know the half of it my guy,’ Orochi gushed, ‘I checked and rechecked my form so many ti- ah but what exactly do you mean “on the test”?’Bookmark here

Mwhaha, the trap successfully caught its prey. ‘You know, the one test that brings us all together at this moment?’Bookmark here

‘Fool, I have no idea what drivel you’re on about. Such malicious slander in ill will! Learn to give up to the superiors.’ Bookmark here

Were those beads of sweat Makoto saw on his forehead? Could reptiles even sweat? Bookmark here

‘Give it up Orochi. Looks like I have the higher ground now.’ Makoto calmly countered. Orochi had taken the bait. Now it was time to reel him in with some quick improvisation. ‘Word’s out on the street .’Bookmark here

Visible hesitation showed on Orochi’s face. ‘Wait… who'd you hear this from?’ Bookmark here

Makoto smirked again. This was too easy. Bookmark here

‘Turns out your paper-swap buddy is just as loyal to his friends as you, that is to say, not at all.’Bookmark here

‘Damn it! Why would Mirai say anything?! My covers have been blown!’ exclaimed Orochi.Bookmark here

And, checkmate.Bookmark here

‘Hah I’m just playin’, no one said anything,’ replied Makoto coolly. ‘I just happened to witness your paper swapping during the test. Not that I care really, in fact I was a bit inspired by it.’Bookmark here

Orochi stood speechless. ‘Curse you Makoto, curse you,’ he grumbled. He turned to face the rest of the group, trying to gauge their reactions.Bookmark here

‘I mean, it’s not that big of a deal,’ commented Kenta. ‘People cheat all the time, some way or another. Whether that be on a test or like my father.’Bookmark here

Makoto made a mental note never to talk about Kenta’s family situation.Bookmark here

Saburo looked up from his laptop and pushed his dangling glasses back up, smiling slyly. ‘Yeah I mean, I’m something of a cheater myself. You know, with all the hacking I do all the time.’Bookmark here

‘Yeah, believe it!’ touted Masao.Bookmark here

‘While cheating may bring you only suffering in the future, it is not in my business to morally judge you,’ said Takashi.
Bookmark here

‘Have you always cheated?’ asked Makoto.Bookmark here

Orochi sighed. ‘Maybe on the rare occasion, but only really recently. Between student council, networking, college application preparation, and the investment banking internship grind, I really don’t have any time to be studying for anything,’ justified Orochi.Bookmark here

Was this even a first year high school student?! Oh well, Makoto didn’t want to ask and derail the conversation further than it was already going.Bookmark here

Orochi checked his silver watch and continued. ‘Anyways guys, I’ve handed out sheets containing class notes from the past three days. You guys should go through them and study. Tanaka sensei is expecting that you all do well on the next quiz coming up in a week.’Bookmark here

‘Wait, so why did she ask you to lead this group?’ asked Kenta.Bookmark here

‘Well I mean, not to brag or anything, but I am pretty much the top dog in the class after all.’ bragged Orochi. ‘She probably wanted to give you guys a good mentor, so here I am. In return, she’ll give me a glowing recommendation letter.’Bookmark here

‘Do you even know what’s happening in the class?’Bookmark here

‘No not really,’ admitted Orochi. ‘But those who have finesse in life don’t need to.’Bookmark here

Oh man, so this was really a useless study group now. Great. Makoto pulled the notes sheet forward and skimmed through the content relating to ancient history. What a pain, he had no interest in memorizing any of this. Bookmark here

‘Anyway,’ said Orochi as he glanced at his watch for seemingly the tenth time, ‘I have a couple of networking parties to attend to. You guys will keep meeting everyday, and I will reconvene with you two days prior to the quiz to check in on the progress.’ Bookmark here

And with that he slithered out of the room.Bookmark here

An awkward silence ensued, punctuated only by Saburo’s consistent clicks and clacks on his laptop. Bookmark here

‘What’re you even doing on your laptop?’ Bookmark here

‘Nothin’ special ya know, just SQL injecting a mainframe via ssh through a remote strawberry tart.’Bookmark here

This was gonna be a total disaster.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.