Chapter 2:

To Cheat or not to Cheat

Slacker Squad: Why Work When You Can Cheat?

‘No, I refuse to believe this,’ whispered Orochi, looking as pale as if he had seen a ghost.Bookmark here

It was two days before the quiz. Bookmark here

‘You guys had nearly a week to memorize those things on the sheet.’Bookmark here

The room remained silent.Bookmark here

‘And yet you guys know barely anything! What have you guys been doing?’ he demanded to know.Bookmark here

The room once again responded in silence.Bookmark here

Orochi started hurriedly pacing back and forth. ‘My recommendation letter is on the line! My college apps are on the line! At this rate, my career in finance is finished!’.Bookmark here

Takashi raised his hand. ‘Learning is not about earning, but a way of flowering into a bet--.’Bookmark here

Orochi lifted a nearby chair and hurled it out of the window.Bookmark here

Takashi put his hand back down.Bookmark here

Orochi slammed his fist on the table, cursing. ‘Damn it, I should’ve known this would happen.’Bookmark here

Ah yes, this was Makoto’s cue to leave. Bookmark here

‘Wow dear me, would you look at the time!’ interrupted Makoto as he got up from his seat, looking intently at his watch. ‘My deepest apologies for the lack of preparedness; I guess it’s gonna be a grind now. But anyway, I’ll be heading out. I have to, uh, help my mom out at the shop. Family business and all, y’know.’ Bookmark here

‘But I thought your family’s ramen shop was closed on weekends,’ questioned a puzzled Kenta.Bookmark here

‘Hold it right there, Mr. Katayama,’ Orochi materialized in front of the door, blocking Makoto’s path. ‘If you think you can simply walk away after jeopardizing my future career, you better think again.’Bookmark here

‘Ho ho, is that a threat I hear?’ growled Makoto.Bookmark here

Saburo glanced from his laptop screen. ‘Y’all really gotta chill out. I’m almost past the Pentagon's firewall. How is a master supposed to focus on his craft with all this ruckus?’ Bookmark here

Last Makoto had checked, Saburo had been clicking random links on the Pentagon’s website, so he was fairly certain that it might take him a bit before he would crack the firewall.Bookmark here

‘This isn’t the time for an internal conflict arc guys!’ asserted Masao. ‘We are a team!’Bookmark here

Kenta shook his head. ‘Believe me how much I despise saying this but Masao is right. We are in this together, for better or for worse. I’m sure we can cram everything within the next two days.’Bookmark here

Orochi glared daggers at them. ‘But it’s much too late now to memorize all that material in less than two days. Even I am having trouble learning this.’Bookmark here

Makoto could care less about this whole operation. Honestly, what better did Orochi expect? It wasn’t like he wanted another failure, but the part about having to help out at his family's place hadn’t been a complete lie. Last week had been pretty busy and after an entire day of school and managing the shop, it was rather hard to motivate himself to even put in the bare minimum effort he usually did. This was bad though; all he could hope for was that this didn’t become a pattern if he wanted to go on that class summer trip with, and get a chance to talk to Shizuka. Bookmark here

When it came to romance, Makoto wasn’t the typical simp desperate to lick the feet of literally any member of the opposite sex, but there was something about the student council president, Uyeno Shizuka, that just inexplicably reeled him in - hook, like and sinker. It wasn’t just how pretty she was or how perfect her poise was. It was that determined look in her eyes. It was the way she carried herself. It was how you just knew from watching someone that the person was giving their best. Makoto really wanted to get to know her, even if from afar.Bookmark here

But at this rate, it looked like all he’d be knowing about was Masao’s anime figurine collection, from very uncomfortable proximity. He snapped back to reality.Bookmark here

Orochi had once again begun pacing back and forth, biting his thumb, seemingly in deep thought and mumbling under his breath. ‘What do I do now? Well I mean there’s that but … no, these fools couldn’t .... but then what other option do we have ...?’ Bookmark here

He stopped and clapped his hands together twice, seemingly in prayer. ‘Oh almighty Gods of finance, I really did not want it to come to this, but there doesn’t seem to be any other way.’ Bookmark here

Honestly, there probably was some cobra-like deity up there, thought Makoto, listening to Orochi’s requests, given all that he’d been able to pull off. Bookmark here

But what kind of nefarious schemes were running through Orochi’s twisted mind? While Makoto by himself might be able to get up to a passing grade level within the next two days, not even he could think of anything that could save the group as a whole. They were a lost cause from the beginning.Bookmark here

But Orochi appeared to have come to a resolution.Bookmark here

He cleared his throat and announced, ‘So my good folk of Slackerland, after hours of deliberation and pondering upon, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one thing left to do that can save face for us all.' Bookmark here

‘And your recommendation letter,’ muttered Makoto. Bookmark here

Orochi pretended not to hear. ‘We as students are trapped in a vicious, inescapable cycle that is brought on by the current schooling system,’ he proclaimed. ‘One in which we memorize, regurgitate, and forget. Classes squeeze us into the same mold, attempting not just to assess how well one is performing in that cycle but to encapsulate the entirety of you through mere singular letters called “grades".Bookmark here

‘Unfortunately, grades in society are associated with future potential,’ he continued, ‘and thus your futures depend on it. But you must all know by now how useless a metric it is in determining one's true potential! I’ll admit, I was too harsh on you guys earlier, this situation has resulted due to no direct fault of your own.’Bookmark here

No wonder so many people in finance turned to become successful politicians, thought Makoto. But well, he might have a point...Bookmark here

‘In this cruel and unjust world, it is those like yourselves, even if you don’t realize it, whose possibilities of tomorrow is wrongfully suppressed by the schooling systems of today. Tell me, Masao, what do you want to do when you grow up?’ Bookmark here

Masao pointed at himself, surprised. ‘Me?’ Clearly he was not used to receiving attention.Bookmark here

‘Yes, Masao, you.’Bookmark here

‘When I grow up, I want to have acquired at least six out of the eight Moe Nyaa-Chan Premium Tokimeki tier figurines!’Bookmark here

Orochi covered his hand over his face in shame. ‘No, Masao, I’m talking about what you want to do as a job. You know, a career?’Bookmark here

‘Oh,’ replied Masao, very clearly disappointed. He shrugged casually.Bookmark here

‘See, this man has poor grades and no future aspirations. A deadly combination! Which employer is going to hire that? It will have him on the streets in no time.’Bookmark here

‘To be fair,’ interjected Makoto, ‘We’re only first year high school students. We still have a couple of years to think things through. No one is born from the womb knowing what they want to be, except for you of course.’Bookmark here

‘It is only my hard work, dedication, and unwavering desire for a prosperous future that I do what I do,’ countered Orochi. ‘But that’s besides the point. Our school systems have failed our poor Masao, and all of you too. And yet, when you fail their tests, you get punished. Talk about an unfair, oppressive regime.Bookmark here

Makoto wondered where this serpent was going with all this.Bookmark here

‘And it will not end there, oh no! It will continue into college. Then into the job search, when you’re begging people to hire you. Then at your job, when your manager is on your tail, and you work unfathomable hours. And then you turn old with rickety joints and loss of bladder control, realizing that you’ve never truly been free from the strings that society has wrapped around you - like a spider wrapping its prey. Will it take you to your death bed until you realize you’ve been a slave your whole life?!’Bookmark here

Orochi paused to stand straighter and look each of them in the eye. ‘However, I offer a solution to our predicament. A solution that breaks us free from the chains of this relentless cycle. But to enact this solution shall not be easy. It will test the integrity of each individual member, assess the faith we can place in one another, and evaluate our grit and work ethic to surpass our very own capabilities.’Bookmark here

He stared dead-eyed at the group. ‘It will require us to never falter, even in the face of certain death.’Bookmark here

Silence followed from that proclamation. Even Saburo had stopped typing to pay attention. Bookmark here

Had Orochi finally lost it? That was assuming he’d ever been sane, of course. Bookmark here

Orochi continued strongly. ‘How much longer are you willing to stand compliant? No more can we allow ourselves to be slaves to the schooling regime. We must stand up and put one over on them with our own hands. We need to game the system, hack into it and exploit it for all that it is worth. Only by standing up now can we escape the cycle and unlock our true potential, living the life we want to lead!’Bookmark here

‘So ... you’re saying we should beat up and overthrow the school administrators in a unified coup d’etat?’ postulated a puzzled Kenta.Bookmark here

‘No Kenta, this man is asking us if we would like to cheat on the exams,‘ responded Makoto.Bookmark here

‘Fool, we don’t use words that crude around this joint, for the establishment might catch us,’ warned Orochi. Bookmark here

Takashi had begun to shake his head. ‘To an enlightened one, it does not matter whether things go one’s way or not. But forget about the schooling regime. Isn’t it unfair to the honest student who works for their grade, regardless of the supposed uselessness of the letter grade?’ he questioned. ‘And won’t it hurt our individual efforts to practice critical thinking and problem solving that is useful for our future?’Bookmark here

‘And that is exactly why the school system is a cruel oppressor, my dear Takashi,’ interrupted Orochi. ‘They put you under the illusion that you’re mastering those skills. But exams only test mainly for knowledge. So the grades only reflect what you know. Where’s the critical thinking?‘Bookmark here

‘Fine, I concede that you might be right there, Orochi. But you forget my first point. If we condemn the schooling regime for being unfair, then how can we justify partaking in acts that are unfair to our fellow working classmates?’Bookmark here

Had Makoto entered a philosophy class? His head was whirling.Bookmark here

Orochi shook his head, turned his back to them and stared out the window, sipping a hot cup of tea. Where had he even gotten that from?Bookmark here

‘What is cheating?’ put forth Orochi. Bookmark here

‘Oh, oh, here is the definition,’ chimed in Saburo, about to read off from some website. ‘It is the act of being unfair in order to gain an advantage.’Bookmark here

‘Now, now, before you all come screaming at me… yes, the definition mentions the term “unfairly”. But listen up,’ stated Orochi. ‘Consider if I were to cheat in a game. This would cause my “opponents” to lose, and thus my actions would have impacted others directly. Bookmark here

'However, exams are different; cheating does not impact my fellow classmates. In fact, there is no clear loser, and only a gain of winners within the system! Exams are not a zero-sum game my dear friends.’Bookmark here

Takashi sat nonplussed, his entire world having been rocked in half a minute by a snake sipping tea.Bookmark here

Orochi glanced at his watch. ‘Time’s running out, so I’ll conclude with this. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to negotiate grades as a meaningless gauge of intelligence, so our only option is to rebel within the system to escape from it. I implore you, good people. The road I wish to take is a perilous one, and I shudder to imagine myself on it without you guys walking alongside me.’Bookmark here

He turned towards them, again looking each member straight in the eye before proceeding, ‘So I must ask you now.’ He put his right hand out, as if to shake their hands. ‘Are you with me, to subvert this oppressive regime, to discover new ways of success, and to improve not just your grades but your lives?’Bookmark here

‘Okay, that’s cool and all, but what if we get caught?’ asked Makoto. ‘The punishment for that would be much grander than anything we’ve experienced up to this point in our lives. It would spell the end for our careers, especially yours.’Bookmark here

‘That’s a legitimate concern, Makoto,’ fielded Orochi, ‘But no successful entrepreneur has ever made it to the top without taking a shot in the dark, without risking something. This is something that largely depends on our own execution - something that with proper training, we have a great deal of control over. Besides, have you taken a look at Tanaka sensei? All she does is -’Bookmark here

‘- go on her phone, yes,’ interrupted Makoto. This was messing with his head. Was there only upside in cheating? He remembered when he took that test, what thrill there was in simply witnessing the paper swap. What adrenaline coursed through his veins as he himself … had attempted to subvert the schooling regime.Bookmark here

He mentally slapped himself. Looked like a little too much of Orochi's venomous energy had gotten to him. But with all sides in consideration, the answer, strangely enough, stood clear to him.Bookmark here

‘I’m in,’ said Makoto.Bookmark here

‘Yeah, letting the system confine you is for losers,’ replied Saburo. ‘I’m in on this real world hacking.’Bookmark here

‘It’ll be like that one time in the Shunin exams!’ chimed in Masao. ‘I’m in too. Let’s do this!’Bookmark here

During this, Kenta glanced at the others for their opinion before continuing. ‘Well, if you guys are in, then so am I. Might as well not miss out on the fun or something.’Bookmark here

Wow, these guys got on board easy, thought Makoto.Bookmark here

Everyone turned their gaze at Takashi, the final member, in anticipation. Honestly, Makoto wasn’t sure what Takashi would say, given that he had been pretty much the only voice of opposition throughout this whole discussion. Bookmark here

‘I too, am in. I cannot waste my time in summer school when I can be meditating,’ huffed Takashi.Bookmark here

Silence ensued briefly, and Orochi grinned widely, his narrow eyes narrowing even more. ‘Well, I never thought a day like this would come! Welcome to Freedom Express, where we will be departing from the schooling regime shortly.’Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.