An interview (of sorts) with: Lauren Jankowski

Jet’s at it again, driving her dimension-hopping Chrysler (“Dammit, it’s a Chrysler Imperial!  Way different!”) into another author’s world to meet some new people.  This time she visited Lauren Jankowski’s The Shapeshifter Chronicles series.   Jankowski’s five-book series is set to be re-released with fresh covers and edits this fall, and Jet had the chance to go for a ride with the main character of Book 5, The Dwelling of Ekhidna.  Let’s do this…

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The car seems to stretch on forever behind stern-looking quad headlamps and a wide, grinning grille.  In the dark, the streetlights tint the hood a pale orange but it’s really sky blue.  The hood crawls past for an absurdly long time before giving way to the passenger cabin, and the door opens with a comforting whiff of classic-car smell, a blend of old upholstery and oil that suggests antique stores and vintage gas stations.  The driver is cloaked in shadow for a moment, and then the interior light comes on and reveals a woman with short, spiky dyed-red hair and a mischievous crooked grin.  A pair of crutches lies across the back seat in easy reach, and two bottles of water rest in the middle of the front seat.  Otherwise the cavernous interior is empty.  “Hi, Blitz, I’m Jet,” the driver says.  “I’ll give you a lift, wherever you’re going.  Scramble into my parlor, and tell me if you prefer sushi or tacos.”

“I don’t have a destination, but I have been instructed to travel with you for a bit. I have no objections to doing so.” She pauses and studies the car with her glowing green eyes, tilting her head a little. “I don’t eat in front of people. Normals tell me that is strange, so I hope I do not cause any offense. My apologies if I do.”

“I don’t offend easily, you’re good.  So why don’t you eat in front of people?  Does it have something to do with your eyes?”

She smooths the black sleeve of her sleek catsuit, a faint grin dancing briefly across her lips. “It does, in a way. I was taken by a Corporation, one that deals in conflict and war. I’m modified to be a living weapon, capable of taking down large numbers of hostiles, either on my own or with a team. I have undergone extensive training using methods and tactics that many would term brutal. My not eating in front of people is a habit I fell into during my time at the Grenich Corporation, a habit most of their experiments tend to pick up. When people watch someone eat, chances are the food has been poisoned. Normals become oddly voyeuristic when it comes to poison.”

She pauses, then gestures to her eyes. “The glow, it’s a brand of the Grenich Corporation, something all their experiments have. I do not know the exact formula, but it’s a kind of luminol that’s injected directly into the iris shortly before the experimentation begins.”

“That sounds really unpleasant.  What’s it like, interacting with the world when you’re different from ‘most everyone else?”

Blitz goes quiet again and glances at the window. Her fingers brush against the silver cat charm she wears about her throat. “It’s . . . very strange. The protectors, shape shifters who I live with, are very noble and at one time, I would have seen that as a weakness or something that could be exploited. Now . . . I find I have the strange desire to protect them from those who would seek to do them harm. Though I do not know how feasible that desire is. The Grenich Corporation is always coming up with new experiments and soon I will be obsolete.”

“I don’t think that’s such a strange desire.  Seems pretty natural to me.  Are you the only one?”

She frowns and shakes her head. “There are a few experiments who live with the protectors. Jack, for example, is a seven series, like me. We’re both modified to be superior soldiers and covert operatives. Ever since being extracted from the Corporation, he tries to act more like the normals and I think he wants to be like them. Many experiments seem to want that. But . . . I don’t. I wonder if that makes me what many would term ‘bad.’”

After a moment, she adds, “Your language is bizarre to me. Why is there so much poetic flourish and metaphor and random innuendo? I sometimes marvel that anyone understands anyone else. And you reveal so much often without knowing or meaning to. Normals are such open books. It makes protecting you rather difficult.”

Jet laughs.  “I’m no poet.  Innuendo is easy enough I guess–though I know people who are better.  If I had to think about why, I’d say that talking is a form of telepathy.  You’re sharing your thoughts with someone else.  And sometimes your thoughts are boring, or icky, or just embarrassing.  So, all those language tricks are there so you can fine-tune your message. Or obfuscate it, to use a five-dollar word.”

Blitz raises her eyebrows a little. “Your explanation is logical and it makes sense. Sly, one of the protectors’ informants, says that experiments’ overly literal speech makes us sound like Martians to normals. I’m sure there’s some truth to that, though I do not understand why it would be exclusive to creatures from Mars. And there aren’t any creatures on Mars, so far as anyone knows. The reference is very odd.”

She chuckles.  “So what’s everyday life like, then?  Yeah, I’m nosy, but it’s for a good cause.”  

Blitz half-grins, a very subtle expression. “I like you. Your company is enjoyable.  Everyday life is fighting battles, always fighting battles. Mind you, on different fronts. I train for a few hours every day. I walk around the protectors’ mansion, observing the occupants who also live there. I sometimes accompany one of my teammates on errands, especially if I want to do reconnaissance. Sunrise until late night is spent going over tactics and training mostly. Occasionally, I’ll go out on missions with my teammates. They desire to do good in the world and want to dismantle the Grenich Corporation. An admirable goal, one I intend to help them with, but I do not know if it is entirely possible. At least, not without some sacrifice, one the protectors have already declined to make.”  Her glowing eyes travel to the windshield. “The Grenich Corporation lesions experiments’ brains so that we don’t require sleep. We meditate instead, usually about two hours is enough. However, normals require quite a few hours of sleep. The mansion often goes silent, very late at night, when all the occupants go to sleep.”

Jet’s eyes widen a little, impressed. “That is hard-core.”

Blitz looks back at Jet. “I wander the grounds, when everything is quiet and peaceful. I breathe in all the scents, listen to all the sounds, feel all the textures, watch the night sky. In the morning, I often have to deal with the onslaught of sensory information, but at night, when there’s not so much activity surrounding me? I can let my heightened senses take in everything. It is . . . pleasant. I do not understand why, but it is nice. I look forward to the night.”

She makes a gentle right turn, and they are rather suddenly driving on a lonely country road with a big, star-filled sky stretching overhead and mountains in the distance.  “I feel you on that, but that’s mostly because of work and a genetic aversion to sunblock. So you casually dropped that you live with shapeshifters.  Is that a common thing, where you’re from?  Or are they a secret?”

“That entirely depends on what species you belong to. Humans are fairly oblivious in general, but all the other supernaturals know about each other. I live with protectors, a faction of shape shifters who are dedicated to protecting the guardians, who are very similar to deities found in ancient myths though not as omnipotent or divine. Only a few shape shifters have seen guardians, they live in their own lands.” Blitz pauses again and when she speaks, her voice has a hint of frustration. “The fight against the Grenich empire would be somewhat easier to fight if the guardians took a more active part in the conflict, but their sacred laws prohibit such interference. Such rigid adherence to archaic rules is not wise and will almost certainly be detrimental to all of us in the future.”

“Sounds like a big problem on the horizon.  These Grenich folks who made you, do you think they want you back?  Obsolete–sorry, that’s a terrible word to use, I mean it clinically not personally–obsolete or not, aren’t they concerned about your whereabouts?”

“Oh yes, they definitely want me back and Jack as well. The bounty on our heads keeps climbing. The heads of the Corporation, Set and Pyra, they are following a prophecy that speaks of an invincible weapon that will be capable of conquering every world there is. They believe this weapon will be an experiment from their Corporation and they have been refining their experimentations in the hopes of finding this weapon. Something about Jack and I is different than other seven series, though it’s hard to explain what exactly. We know we were tagged as potential Keys, which is what they call this supposed ultimate weapon.” She goes quiet for a moment, running her fingers through her short hair. “Even if we weren’t potentially special, the Corporation doesn’t like runaways. It could damage their reputation, make people question their power and scare away investors. They need to retrieve us, if only to make an example out of us, dissuade others who would think of running away. They can’t afford to have experiments learning about freedom or thinking they should have rights.”

“Wow.  So…what if you are this weapon?  Are you going to go on a conquering spree?”

Blitz lets out a quiet huff of laughter. “To be honest, I do not know and I do not think anyone else does. Such is the way of prophecies. Set wants to use the weapon to conquer the homeland of the guardians and then the other worlds in the universe. Supposedly, the Key would have the ability to do this. However, according to the prophecy, it’s not without drawbacks or risks: the Key is also capable of destroying the wielder, the key to his or her undoing as well.” She glances out the window. “I do not believe I am the Key, but I am not averse to the idea. Unlike other experiments, I have often demonstrated a tendency toward retaliation. We’re meant to be dispassionate and indifferent, removed from whatever we’re ordered to do. I do not experience emotions and yet . . . even on my early missions, I would frequently retaliate if I was threatened. I think it made the higher ups at Grenich nervous. I believe it still does. I am certain of one thing: I refuse to be used as a weapon of death for Grenich anymore. I will not kill for them, never again.”

“That’s definitely a complication among complications.  Is this the kind of thing where they’ll come after you, and your friends, and your cow, and so on?”

“I . . . do not own a cow. And if I did, I do not think threatening livestock would be an effective threat to level against me.” She tilts her head a little. “If I’m understanding your question, aside from the cow, then the answer is yes. The protectors are in a great danger for offering sanctuary to experiments, me in particular. Set and Pyra will do anything to retrieve their weapons and they have millennia of experience.”

“What happens if you’re not this Key?”

Blitz lifts a shoulder in a half shrug. “Then one of the other two is. Grenich will still want me recaptured because the higher ups know I won’t let them retrieve their Key. They know I won’t stop fighting as long as there’s breath in my body. I’ve taken out a few of their valuable allies, some lower subordinates, killed a few retrieval specialists. They know I plan to dismantle their entire organization, piece by piece if need be. I’m dangerous, even if I’m not the Key.”

“It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it,” Jet says with a smile.  “I think I’m not going to invest in Grenich stock any time soon.  So…are you a Batman, or more of a Captain America, generally speaking?  Oop–sorry–that’s a metaphor.  Do you work alone, or are you assembling a team to help you?”

She grins. “I am part of a team, actually. There is a guardian prophecy that speaks of four shape shifter women who will defeat a threat to all that’s good in the world. I don’t place much stock in prophecy, but my teammates are capable warriors and formidable in their own ways.” She goes quiet for a moment, her fingers dancing over the window. “Some of the experiments we’ve freed have expressed a desire to fight against Grenich, alongside the protectors. I think this makes my teammates sad, especially Shae. Shae’s very much an idealist, an optimist as the normals often term it. The concept baffles me, which perhaps is not all that surprising. She worries that the protectors will use the experiments as Grenich did and I do not understand this concern. It would be an effective strategy: using the corporation’s weapons against them, quite possibly the only way to ensure victory. As I’ve often told the protectors, it might be they need experiments to win this war.”

“But no pressure, right?  So…if everything goes well, and the prophecy is true and the world is saved–and you survive–what will you do then?”

“I haven’t given much thought to that. It’s highly unlikely I will survive this fight and I do not expect everything to go well. I don’t even know if the world is saveable, with the amount of power and sway Grenich has. If I do survive, I think myself and the other experiments will need to find some other place to live. Somewhere secluded, a different world. We make the normals nervous and it’s understandable. Experiments resemble the monsters in your folklore and mythologies, we’re designed to elicit a fearful response. We’re dangerous. And it is better for everyone if we went our own way.” She frowns and taps on the window. “I do not know if that’s what I would desire. Logically, that is the best course of action, but . . . I think I have developed some kind of attachment to the protectors and even a few of the guardians. I know they would want me to stay, they have told me as much, but they’re driven by sentiment and emotion. They have often tried to explain their complex notions of love and family to me, but it seems so foolish. And yet . . . I find that I do not like the idea of leaving them.”

“Sounds like you’re figuring out love on your own,” Jet says.  “With a conflict like that, yours is going to be a good story no matter what happens to you.  Though I do wish you the best.”  The car accelerates gently as the road turns to dirt.  There is almost no reaction from the suspension; it glides over the rough surface as though riding on a cloud.  “So, here’s a silly question:  how far do you think you could throw a toaster?”

Blitz opens her mouth, closes it again, and stares at Jet for a minute, puzzled. “I would need to know the exact weight and dimensions to give you an accurate answer. I would venture to guess that I could probably throw it rather far. I could definitely throw it further than a normal.”

“Good answer,” she says.  “So you feel that sentiment and emotions are illogical–and you’re right–but do you think they’re worth having?”

“At one time, I would have answered no without hesitation. Normals often rely on them when it comes to making decisions, which can be frustrating especially when it causes them to act against their own best interest. As I mentioned, experiments learn how to manipulate normals using their emotions and sentiment against them. I was conditioned to see such things as a disadvantage, a weakness. However, after living among normals, I have seen a sort of advantage to such things as emotions and sentiment. Experiments are taught to see ourselves as expendable, merely cannon fodder. We’re replaceable and if we die, another experiment takes our place. Normals care for their wounded, they bond with each other. They see beauty and hope in the world. They’re not often indifferent to whatever they’re working toward or fighting for. Perhaps the answer to your question lies in the person: many normals need to have sentiment and emotions therefore for them, they are worth having. I think such things would hinder me now, but admittedly, they probably did not when I was a normal.”

“I didn’t realize you started out as normal.  Do you have any memory of that?  Did Grenich just snatch you off the street one day?  Because if they did, that’s heinous.”

Blitz shakes her head once. “Grenich has three ways of getting shape shifters for experimentation. Some are born within their facilities, to experiments whose sole purpose is providing new products. Others are bartered to the corporation through negotiations with their employees: job security in exchange for a child of their choosing. The last method is outside recruitment.”

She pauses for a moment, studying Jet with a thoughtful expression. “What I am about to reveal to you will undoubtedly put your life in peril. You must be careful and watch your back from now on. And I only tell you because you strike me as the sort who can weather adversity.”

“Don’t worry about me.  I’m not much of a runner, but I have some extremely violent and overprotective friends,” Jet says with a grin.

“That’s good,” Blitz says with a faint smile before sobering. “In the likely event that I do perish in this war, I want to make sure Grenich, Set, and Pyra can never again hide in plain sight. The more people who have knowledge of them, the less power they will have.” She sighs and looks out the window. “Set is a necromancer, the first one, and as such, has power over life and death. He has created others in the millennia he has walked the Earth. When his sources locate a shape shifter who is a good candidate for experimentation, he sends out a recruitment team. They are quick and efficient: they kill the candidate, retrieve the body, and bring it to the nearest laboratory. A necromancer then restores life to the shape shifter and after a brief recovery period, the handlers set about breaking the candidate’s will and erasing their identity. It doesn’t take very long, a day to resuscitate, a month or two to break the shape shifter.”

“Okay, that’s terrible.”

Blitz swallows, her brow knitting. “That is how I was recruited, though I have no memory of it, being killed or resuscitated or even of breaking. My clearest memories are from when I first started training in the corporation. There are some, both experiment and normal, who have memories of my being a normal but I only have fragments. Brief flashes of memory, nothing concrete or clear. Based on some of the books I’ve read in the protectors’ library, it sounds similar to what normals call dreaming. Sometimes, when I enter a place, I remember something vague, a face or a scent or something like that, even though I have no memory of being there. There are normals who seem so familiar and yet, I cannot remember our meeting or interactions. My memory is . . . I believe the term is fragmented. It is very peculiar: the Corporation gave me an eidetic memory, just like all their other experiments. But those of us who were recruited, our earlier memories are fragmented. It is a logical thing for the Corporation to do, obviously, but a selectively eidetic memory is just a strange experience in general.”

“Ugh, especially if you were aware of the gaps.  So much to unpack.  But there’s a lot to like about you, Blitz.  You’re not a typical hero, I don’t think.  I hope things go well for you.  I’ve taken up a whole bunch of your time, though, so I should drop you off soon.  Is there anyplace you want to go?”

“Thank you. I do not often interact with normals, not those I’m not already acquainted with, but this has been enjoyable,” Blitz responds, her hands resting in her lap again, her expression reflecting what might be contentment. “I have no particular destination, Jet. You can let me out wherever you like. I always find my way back to whatever place I call home.”

“I know how that is.  In that case,” she says, turning right and causing the view through the windows to blur suddenly, coalescing into a rough two-lane surrounded by high trees on both sides, “welcome to Montana.  There’s a beautiful little ghost town up that way.  It’s a nice place to walk, and think.  And the freeway’s a couple of miles the other direction, whenever you’re ready to bounce home.  Have a good night!”

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For more about The Shapeshifter Chronicles and Lauren Jankowski, check out her website.   She’s also on Twitter.  As far as I know, Blitz does not have a Twitter.