“Imposter Syndrome,” by James Stuart

Dec 20th, 2022 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

Out of all the 18,652 cosmic shapeshifters that had infiltrated the planet, Kymbyrlee was sure she was the only one who had yet to master walking. The thought came with predictable speed the moment she tripped on the sun-cracked pavement, her left heel hitting the pavement a little too hard. The connection sent a shock through her leg, compressing the rough skin of her foot painfully against bone. She caught herself with the other leg and avoided yet another scraped face, but she could feel her posture overcorrecting, becoming stiff and unnatural. She could feel the looks of passersby graze her, and couldn’t help imagining what they thought. She just wanted to get home.

Simple actions had become complicated by sweltering insomniac nights, which sent her spiraling into herself in waves. Feelings of inadequacy would bubble up, forcing herself to soothe her anxieties over and over again. This made her days seem unreal and even more difficult. Outside of her building, she caught a glimpse of herself in the darkened glass of a window. Her eyes were too close, her ears too large and circular, and her nose seemed to somehow sit both too high and too low on her face. She had formed it all wrong, but it was too late to try something different. A change would attract suspicion.

There had been no such trouble on her last planet, where she effortlessly assumed the form of a sentient gelatin cube and wobbled heroically in place for a full cycle. That had been easier. She had even received an (unofficial) commendation for the effort. Here on earth, however, it didn’t seem to matter how tenaciously she wobbled in place. She felt stuck.

She finally made it inside her building, where one of the many middle-aged divorcees who lived there was sitting in the lobby and scrolling through his phone. This one was named Orin, she thought, or maybe Alex. She had difficulty keeping her neighbors straight in her head. They had the same air of desperation, and the same tendency to let their eyes linger.

“Hell of a day,” the man said, looking up from the glass surface of his phone. “You holding up?”

“Yes. Holding it all up,” she nodded and quickly moved to the elevator. “Thank you. Good bye,” she added. As the doors closed, she could see his slightly perplexed face struggling to maintain a smile.

Language had proven another challenge. Letters and words in general were needlessly confusing. Adjectives in particular eluded her. Her assigned native tongue of English simply had too many of them, and she was always confusing words like oily and ornery or tasteful and traceable. They all melted together into a jumble that left her feeling as if she were picking them out at random and hoping for the best. The whole thing always left her feeling balsamic.

Like everyone in the invasion force, Kymbyrlee knew that fitting in was not just a part of the job, it was a sacred calling. They were the select few that would be the forerunners of a new way of life. By becoming one with the populace, they would understand it. What was alien would become familiar, and together something new would emerge. Of course, there would always be some initial resistance from the locals, but it would be overcome as they were absorbed into something greater and the galaxy was united into a glorious whole united around the Emperor. There could be no greater destiny than to be the engine of that change. Kymbyrlee’s grandfather had preached this to her as soon as she was capable of listening, and the words had contained so much truth and been conveyed with such passion that she had cried when she first heard them. For this reason, her failure to walk and talk naturally after nearly a year among humans was crushing.

As Invasion Day approached, she was still living in a cheap apartment on the poorly serviced edge of a large city. It was important, she had been told, that the Traltalite Empire have accurate information about every area within the twelve selected insertion cities. She couldn’t help noticing that other members of the Empire had been better positioned to climb the ladders of society. They lived in the middle of town or in lush surroundings on the outskirts. They had important-sounding job titles, while she was still working the deep fryer at a local fast-food restaurant.

Finally in her apartment, she let out a large sigh and headed for the shower. She had almost reached the bathroom when she was stopped by frantic knocking and a playful voice from the other side of her door.

“Let me in, Lee,” the voice shouted.

It could only be Tina. Kymbyrlee was tired and unprepared for socialization, but she did not want to disappoint her only friend. She sighed to herself as she turned around and unlocked the door. Never having got the hang of human greetings, she stood awkwardly in place and looked down at Tina with the approximation of a smile. She waited for her friend to take a lead she could follow.

“Something on my face?” Tina laughed, hugging Kymbyrlee before pushing past her. “You really got to decorate a little bit. It’s so depressing. I guess you go in for that minimalist vibe, yeah?”

Tina had always been like this. She assaulted Kymbyrlee with friendship from the moment she had met her. Kymbyrlee had been suspicious of espionage at first, but had learned that the young college student was simply desperate to cling to the only other person in the building who was in her general demographic.

At first, Tina had tried to incorporate Kymbyrlee into her group of friends, but those outings were a disaster. When the other young humans all talked and laughed. Kymbyrlee did not know how to respond.

“What kind of person do you hate the most?” That had been the implied topic of conversation at one such outing, as they all shoved food and drink in their overly moist human mouths.

“Personally, I’m done listening to anyone who talks down to me” one woman had said, and everyone nodded in approval laughing and sharing examples they had encountered.

Then it was another woman’s turn. “Yesterday, I had to go over and speak to some guy who decided to listen to his music through the speaker of his phone.” Everyone laughed again, although no joke had been told.

It seemed to Kymbyrlee that these humans had conversations primarily to affirm things they already believed and knew that their friends believed as well, so Kymbyrlee thought of irritations that others likely experienced and decided to try her luck.

“I’ve never been able to tolerate people that blink constantly,” Kymbyrlee had said.

There was a moment of silence.

“Blinking?” she saw one young man mouth to his friend, his brow furrowed in confusion.

In that moment, Kymbyrlee was positive that her arms looked inhuman and her exoskeleton could be seen rippling beneath her human skin. She froze in place.

Tina finally intervened. “I think Lee means squarely people, like when someone fidgets all the time.”

This was evidently enough for the others, who laughed and talked about the kind of people that fit that description. It had been a close call.

After that Kymbyrlee, had avoided further large social outings, but she continued to make time for Tina, who was kind and understanding in a way that was unfamiliar. It was not unusual that she would drop by at the end of a work day, nor was it strange that she would have a gift, as she evidently did this time. She took a book she was holding and placed it on Kymbyrlee’s bare, white table.

“I thought you could use this,” Tina said, placing the package on the table and sliding it across the table to her friend. The book was titled Accepting Ourselves in a World of Nonacceptance. “It’s like we talked about. I thought this might help with your whole over-thinking thing.”

“Thank you,” Kymbyrlee half-shouted in her best approximation of human excitement.

Tina laughed and shook her head. After a moment she launched into a series of stories about life at the university. Most seemed trivial and not worth telling, but Kymbyrlee enjoyed the rhythm and tone of her voice. She nodded and smiled her way through the thirty minutes that followed.

When Tina was gone, she took a quick shower, and climbed atop her bed to read. She was up to F in the large academic dictionary she kept perched on the windowsill, but she remembered the book Tina had brought and went to retrieve it instead. It was foolish to think that humans would possess knowledge that could help her, but then again, being human was precisely the problem she was having.

Although it was slow-going at first and full of empty aphorisms, she was surprised to find that there were truths hidden within its pages. Not just truths about blending in as a human, but truths about the desire to blend in altogether. She grabbed a pen and begun to underline important passages. Over the course of three short chapters, Kymbyrlee learned that her awkwardness was a result of self-doubt and an inability to live up to the imagined standards of others. Society had taught her that she could never be good enough and if she was going to flourish, she would need to unlearn all of that unhelpful thinking. She needed to stop fitting in and start standing out. Something clicked into place as she read this, as if everything that had never made sense in her life was now legible, and not just her life on Earth but on Trital Prime too. She fell asleep reading the book and slept with a feeling of ease that she had never before known.

It didn’t last. The next morning, doubts swelled up within her once more. It sounded good to embrace your individuality, but it was at odds with everything she knew to be true about the universe. It was only by coming together that there was any hope of cosmic harmony. What unity could exist without acting as one? The revelations of the human book felt profane in the light of day, blasphemous even. Yet, each night she felt herself revisiting it until she had made her way through its pages three times over.

She was at work one day when she made the first tentative steps towards the version of herself the book prescribed. It was another in an endless chain of cloudless, humid days. Normally she would never speak an opinion first. She always waited for her coworkers to offer conversation so she could nod and agree, but the day was unbearable and, surprising even herself, she found the courage to express as much without any prompting.

“It feels like I’m melting,” she offered.

She had just been expressing a fact, but the teenager on her right laughed.

“Maybe we’ll all get heat stroke and get the rest of the shift off,” he added.

Not used to this kind of banter, Kymbyrlee was reluctant to let it go.

“Illness would certainly be preferable to another three hours.”

Another laugh. It was working. She was just expressing herself honestly and yet somehow it was helping her be accepted.

“Let’s hope we die in terrible, painful agony and never have to work again.”

This time there was no laughter, just the usual strange look, but it didn’t matter. For a moment, she had participated in a fragment of a normal human conversation. She felt a sense of victory, and regained a sliver of the confidence she’d lost in the “blinking” incident. As successful interactions piled up over the following days, she even began to feel as if she had solved a great mystery.

A little over a week later, she was revisiting the self-help book yet again when Dev showed up at her door. He was her commanding officer and the only contact she had with the higher-ups in the invasion force. Neat and trim, with an angular haircut and nicely tailored suit, Dev somehow exuded not only success but also an air of forget-ability. He might draw your eye for a moment, but nobody was likely to remember his only slightly above average face. She had seen him only twice since her arrival. He was supposed to be collecting and reading her bi-weekly reports, but Kymbyrlee doubted he was. On more than one occasion, she had found her hand-written notes sitting in the drop-box untouched. Sometimes two or three would pile up before someone collected them. She never received any feedback.

This was the first time Dev had been inside her apartment, and he tried to hide his disgust as he stepped into her room. Currently living as the CEO of a large tech company, he clearly felt out of his element in Kymbyrlee’s home. He gingerly sat down in one of the beige, plastic chairs, where he explained that the invasion was set to take place the following day.

“Tomorrow? Without warning?” Kymbyrlee asked.

“There was plenty of warning, but it was not necessary to share it.”

She paused. “I don’t understand.”

“You only have to stand in the crowd during the announcement and reveal yourself to the humans. There will be thousands of others around you. It’s a simple task, and there was no need to include you in the planning.”

Kymbyrlee nodded. It was disappointing, but not unexpected. A strange sadness washed over her.  She had wanted to leave this planet every night for a year, but now that it was a reality, she found herself reluctant. She had only just started to understand how things worked

“And you have nothing to add,” Dev said. It was not a question. He was simply terminating the meeting.

Kymbyrlee’s mind was drawn to the book sitting in the corner. Perhaps as a desire to test its central hypothesis that everyone doubted as she did, she stopped him as he began to stand up.

“Wait. Actually, I, um-“

Dev looked down at her with slight annoyance but waited for her to collect her thoughts.

“Have you found it difficult? Being a human, I mean?”

“Difficult how?”

She shrugged and shook her head.

“The smell? You must mean the smell. Yes, that can be difficult to bear.”

“No, difficult to fit in. Be human.”

He was shaking his head before she was even finished.

“No,” Dev said without thinking deeply. “It’s what we do. What we’ve always done. It is only through uniting ourselves that we overcome our selves.”

This last phrase was a popular saying within the invasion force.

“If it’s not coming naturally, I would assume there’s a problem with your functioning.” He sighed. “That is to be expected though. There’s that stubborn vein of failure in your family. Your grandfather thought you might be an exception, but it appears that is not the case.”

Kymbyrlee looked down and said nothing.

“No matter, we can think of your future at a later date. Let us focus on tomorrow.”

Kymbyrlee nodded and Dev stood up to leave. She could see him already disinfecting his hands as she closed the door behind him.

Strangely, Dev’s arrival removed the last of Kymbyrlee’s doubt. Whether it was a need to prove him wrong or an acknowledgment that he was right, she was determined to change. She needed a new tack, but this did not mean she had given up on cosmic harmony. She still believed in the mission with all her heart, but she would not achieve it by pretending to be something she was not. Her experience at work had taught her that there was a deeper harmony possible if one ceased trying to make themselves as small as possible.

She got into bed and read through her favorite sections of Tina’s book. As she did so, a plan came into her head.

The next morning, she looked in the mirror and her eyes shone back at her with renewed vigor. It was the first time in over a year that she had not averted her gaze in disgust. She would walk in public in her true form, glowing, purple, and mantis-like. She knocked first on Tina’s door, needing to return the book and say goodbye to her friend. “Is that you Lee? It’s so early,” she said in a faux-whiny voice from the other side of the door. Tina threw the door open with typical enthusiasm, but the moment she looked into her friend’s eyes, she screamed and quickly ran for the safety of her bathroom.

This was sad but of no great significance. She would come to understand in time. Kymbyrlee set the book down in front of her friend’s door. She walked down the rest of the stairs and out into the August morning just as the sun began to cook the sidewalk. The heat no longer felt oppressive. It was a fire driving her forward.

There were more screams from the few people on the street that early, but she had expected some screams. The book had mentioned there was a cost to being yourself. They would stop eventually. They, however, did not stop before Kymbyrlee reached her destination. The screams carried across town all the way to the appointed meeting spot. The police caught up to her just before she reached her destination. Another member of the invasion force, seeing Kymbyrlee already transformed, assumed he had made a mistake in failing to change before arriving. He quickly revealed himself and prompted a domino effect among the twelve members of the invasion force who had arrived early. A large police force began to assemble and every single Tritalite that showed up that morning was carried away to a nearby military facility.

“Traitor!” Dev shouted at Kymbyrlee as he was wrestled into a military vehicle and placed next to her. “Wait until the Emperor hears of this.” Her old self would have felt shame. But now, as the words washed off her back, she smiled and said nothing.

She no longer needed to feed negative thoughts.


As it turned out, the Emperor would hear about Kymbyrlee’s actions, but not before he had the opportunity to do anything about it. It is said across the galaxy that a Tritalite’s voice produces a dozen echoes. When one top-ranking officer spilled the beans under threat of incarceration, the others were quick to back him up. Only Kymberlee held her tongue, while the others tripped over themselves to offer additional details. Confession was evidently the majority decision and no self-respecting Tritalite wants to be the lone hold-out. The groups hidden across the other eleven cities had gone into hiding after the botched reveal, but with the exceedingly helpful suggestions of the captured invasion force, the majority were tracked down by the following Wednesday.

Earth marked an end. Not just the end of the invasion, but the end of the Tritalite Empire. It turned out that cosmic harmony was something of a forced proposition. Perhaps protest and revolt could have been quelled if the Empire had not been spread so thin, but success had bred arrogance. Most of the Empire’s top military brass had been on Earth, eager for the PR that came from yet another victory. Being captured left a power vacuum, and being captured by such a primitive military cast doubt on the capabilities of the invasion force. The Empire’s structure crumbled from within as planet after planet took back control and finally even Trital Prime fell.

In the mirrored spires of the capital, the Emperor felt a pang of relief. He no longer had to pretend to be as calm and collected as he always appeared. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in the perfect harmony that his forebears had espoused, he had just found it difficult to embody those values at every moment of the day. As the Emperor watched his courtiers pilloried by an angry mob, he at least took some satisfaction in how little resistance they offered. Indeed, it seemed as if the whole planet was now united in opposition to the Empire. He took some solace in this. His downfall was shaping up to be a harmonious one.


James Stuart was born in Ottawa and raised in the city of Toronto. He spent his teens working as a voice actor, and his twenties and thirties in graduate school. He now splits his time between Canada and Japan. He has all his original adult teeth with the exception of an incisor lost in a tragic collision with a supermarket cash register.

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