Over the years and decades and centuries, the Doctor had come up with a series of stock phrases that served him well when he was dropped (well, to be more accurate, usually when he dropped himself) into a new, strange, and possibly dangerous situation.
A look of pleasant competence, a boundless curiosity, the right words at the right time - these things could work miracles.
They sometimes had to.
"I don't understand what you want with us!" shouted Andrea, trying to hold back her tears at the horror of the hideous, squishy, smelly things, and Suzi tight in their grip.
The things' answer made no sense. "We are here to conquer your planet unless you can bend the words!"
"Bend the words, twist the phrase - you keep saying that! I don't understand!" The hot California sun beat down on them all: it made the aliens reek even worse. They had to be aliens, to do what they had done.
Andrea and Suzi had been lying outside on a single towel, getting the start of their summer tans. A sudden shadow, a wet weight falling on them, and the next thing she knew, she was standing in the middle of a barren field, with these - things in front of her.
They looked like orange slugs, if slugs had six tails. Or octopi, if they were all big thick tentacles and no head. Their mouths, or at least the holes that they spoke with, were irregular openings that seemed to rip themselves open and shut. Their breath was hideous.
And they had Suzi. Each of them was twice the size of a human, and two of them were sitting on Suzi's legs and back. Suzi was panting, wild-eyed and too frightened to speak. Or maybe just overwhelmed by the smell.
"You will charm us with linguistic distortions or we will take your world! And blaomph your partner!" one of them said, slapping its tentacle on the ground in a gesture that was clearly threatening.
Andrea bristled, her teeth suddenly bared in her dark face. Through blind chance, the aliens had managed to hit one of her sore points. She hated the terms partner, companion, best friend, roommate: there was only one word, one real word, for her relationship.
"She. Is. My. Wife!" she shouted, loud enough to bring tears to her eyes, and the pulpy things actually seemed to bow away from her for an instant. The sound of the blood beating in her ears was suddenly the loudest sound in the world as the memory rose in her.
(they had been living together for six years when they heard the news report, and had started the two-day drive to San Francisco that night; they had waited in line and people had brought them chairs, brought them water; on the courthouse steps the most beautiful little girl imaginable had given them flowers, and then blushed and ran away; and when they came out the sun was there for them, people were cheering, they threw the bouquet and kissed and they were married and it was the happiest day of their lives)
She would do anything to get Suzi away from them. But she had nothing in her possession but a bikini, and these things didn't seem to have necks to strangle. She grabbed her own kinky hair in her fists. "Think, damnit, think!" she groaned. She was in the middle of nowhere, no weapons, no cell phone, no car, couldn't go for help, no one to help her-
Suddenly the heat of the sun was off her neck, and she sensed movement behind her. She whirled and came face-to-face with a raw-boned man with cropped hair and a leather jacket. He looked like an aging punk, but his eyes were - different.
"They're Al-m'ken," he said, pointing at the squishy things. "They collect alien wordplay: jokes, rhymes, palindromes. If you give them examples they'll let her go and leave the planet." He sounded like an aging British punk, to be exact. But he seemed to understand what was going on, which was more than Andrea could say.
"I caught their broadcast announcing an Interplanetary Linguistics Competition - their code phrase for invasion. If you tell them things, phrases and jokes in English, that amuse them or baffle them, they will go away and leave her. And if you don't, well, they'll probably stay." His mouth twisted for a moment, into almost a frown. A grim look, certainly. Then he leaned close, staring intently into her eyes.
"Now look," he said. "They chose you for a reason. They don't just grab people at random. They must believe that you can give them what they're looking for."
Andrea's friends all knew about her habit of making awful jokes. She'd even been published in some humor magazines, but that was years ago, even before she met Suzi. And how could the aliens know that? How could this strange man know all this?
"Who are you?" she asked, bewildered.
"I'm the Doctor," he said, as though that answered everything. "Pun for your wife."
Andrea and Suzi had to half-carry the Doctor back to where he said he was parked, after the aliens had released their captive and vanished into a purple-black round thing that melted away into the earth.
"Oh, those were awful," he groaned. He kept stopping and clutching his stomach, as the punch line of one pun or another pummeled its way to the front of his mind. "A furniture store called Sofa So Good! And the Shakespeare joke! And the one about the uncomfortable coffin! Those are sincerely the worst puns I've heard on - I don't know how many planets!"
"How many planets?" said Suzi, not sure she'd heard him correctly.
"I - don't think you're from around here, are you?" asked Andrea, as they stopped beside a tall blue box, like a wooden phone booth.
A remarkably handsome young man came out of the box, and looked at the Doctor, and the two women in bikinis propping him up. In fact, he looked at all three of them with equal appreciation.
"Now I really regret not going with you," the handsome man said with a wink.
"Hey!" said a blonde girl, forcing her way out of the box (Andrea wondered how many people were in there anyway? It didn't look like it could hold more than four). "Are you all right?" she asked the Doctor.
"I just - just - saved the world." The Doctor groaned. "With considerable help from the lovely lady in the red bikini. Al-m'ken. They love conquering planets, but they love puns even more. Andrea here," and he pointed with a faintly shaking finger, "she is lethal! Please, let's just go."
"Go where?" asked Suzi. Without answering, the Doctor and the blonde girl went back into the blue box, and after one last lingering look the handsome man shut the door.
The blue box made a groaning noise, and the light on top started to flash. And then it vanished away into nothing.
It was a four mile walk back to their place.
They didn't have any shoes, and the sun was hot.
It was the second happiest day of their lives. They were alive. Together.
NOTES ON THE TALE:
This story references the 2004 decision by the Mayor of San Francisco to allow same-sex couples to get marriage licenses. has numerous articles and photos online regarding this event: a fine starting place to read more about it is at www dot sfgate dot com/pridealbum/
Thanks to F., my beta reader, for Americanizing my grammar.