"Are you comfortable?" the purplish-red space crustacean asked through an app they installed on my smartphone. It sounded like a dry, slightly sarcastic version of a news anchor on TV.
"Yes, I'm fine, thank you."
We were both semi-reclining on what looked like frozen hammocks made of either plastic or some biological substance, in a teal blue mud cavern. My hammock was placed inside a big pyramid of what looked like clear plastic and filled an oxygen-enriched mix, the outside atmosphere reportedly being deficient in this to be breathable by humans. I had been told that the flimsy material was leakproof so there was no need to worry about a risk of explosion, but still. I had declined the offer of a refreshment, not being too certain how they'd get this to me without mixing gases.
The crustacean shifted in its hammock which swayed back and forth, back and forth. "Tell me about human culture."
I racked my brain for something appropriately sweeping, some truth I could sell as being common to all inhabitants of the planet. But then the voice from the phone went on, "Ha, ha. That's a little bit of Raesican humor. We already know that your species has a multiplicity of cultures, same as normal folks."
"I was gonna say."
"Seriously, though, how do you get along with the dominant lifeforms on your world? The ones that generate the oxygen?"
"You mean plants?"
"Specifically, the big ones that grow all over in big upright clumps. Do you resent the way they produce compounds in their leaves just to make them completely inedible by your kind?"
"Oh, you're talking about the trees. No, we're pretty good about them, mostly. We do enjoy their oxygen, as you might imagine."
"Just barely. We know of other places where life has evolved despite a runaway oxygen crisis, but none of them with sentients like you. You're really quite amazing."
"So I've been told, thanks. To us, it's just the way we're built, though."
"Of course." The big crustacean made a broad gesture with a jointed appendage in a way that was almost breezy. Is this something they're after specifically?
I decided to act as if it were so. "We are all quite interested in your biosphere based on methane, as well. It's all brand new to us and terrifically fascinating."
"Boring! Hydrocarbon ecosystems are as common as dirt, I think your scientists have already been told. I myself devoted a long period to the study of science, specifically offworld biologies, and I did it to learn about the strange and unexpected, not the same old. We know of dozens and dozens of ways to make life work in carbon-rich settings, hot ones, cold ones, gassy and not so gassy ones. Only a few in those wacky highly oxidizing ones. It must play merry havoc with metals you wish to use in your technology."
"There is rust. Corrosion and fire too. But we've become pretty good at making things that don't burn or dissolve away, over the years."
"Indeed you have. I hear there's a line of Raesican metallurgists just about to split their shells waiting to find out about your alloys and whatnot. Artists, too, each hoping to become the first to steal ideas from your own best minds before any of the others can do the same. It's what keeps the galaxy spinning around. Your kind is going to want a piece of that, we're already assuming."
"We are naturally interested in trade, it's fair to say. Absolutely." I couldn't help thinking that I sounded like a phony, but had to stall to wrap my mind around what sounded like an offer. "This app that allows us to speak to one another, that your engineers put together in just days once they learned about us -- very cool. And translations of your great literature."
"Literature. Trash, most of it, from my point of view. I'd say you're welcome to it all." The phone app gave the creature a snarky ironic way of speaking, which I couldn't help but imagine was intended by the programmers. In retrospect, I would say this was the exact moment when the interview started to go off the rails.
A gray pill bug the size of a kitten came crawling in on one of the walls. My Raesican conversation partner came to a more upright position on its hammock, then said, "Our time is nearly up now, but I hope you don't mind if we ask one more question on this general subject."
I sat up also. "Not a problem. Ask away."
"Those hard bits inside your bodies, and in the bodies of many other lifeforms on your planet -- what could that possibly be like for you? Isn't that terribly inconvenient?"
Was it talking about my bones? "I would say that it's probably as hard for us to understand living inside a hard shell all the time."
"No, seriously, putting all the soft parts on the outside, constantly? Maybe you know already, our humorists here are having a lot of fun with that inside-out notion."
I wanted to get up and walk out then, but naturally the stupid plastic pyramid got in the way there. Was this thing going to get away with insulting my people's skeletons to my face? I tried to steady my voice. "Perhaps you ought to consider advising your comedians to mind their own business. Some of us aren't as tolerant or as unarmed as I am right now."
And that's when a big wave of the gray pill bugs came scuttling in, all at once, big ones and little ones, and when I decided it was time to call in my backup. I swear that if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't change a thing. I guess you might say I did have a little something to offer about human culture after all.