"Carter, I would kill you for this, if you weren't dead already," growled Newkirk.

"Get in line," said Kinch. "I already called dibs."

Carter looked sulky. "Well, I said I was sorry."

"You haven't even started being sorry yet, mate," said Newkirk.

Colonel Hogan, who was walking the floor of the waiting room, intervened. "Okay, settle down. And a little less talk about being dead. Let's not jump to any conclusions." He meditated briefly, then added. "Anyway, I'm senior officer. So I get first crack at him."

In the silence that followed, LeBeau caught the eye of one of the two receptionists. "It might not be so bad," he remarked. "At least they have girls." He sent her a smile, which she ignored. "She likes me," he said confidently.

Newkirk rolled his eyes. "You're barmy, LeBeau. She's got better taste than that." He waited for the girl to look up again, and winked at her. She didn't so much as bat an eyelid.

"See?" said Newkirk. "You haven't got a hope."

LeBeau glared at him. "Newkirk, you know the short one is always mine!" he hissed.

"You can have the tall one."

"I'd sooner stay celibate."

Kinch broke in. "The way things stand, you may have to, Louis."

Thus reminded of the circumstances, they fell silent. LeBeau became pensive, and Newkirk gave Carter another furious glance.

It was a safe bet that, whatever any of them might have expected after the collapse of the tunnel had buried them, it hadn't been anything like this. One moment they had been engulfed in a torrent of noise and earth; the next, they were instructed to "take a seat, and wait till you are called, please."

Hogan continued pacing back and forth, between the high counter, where the two receptionists continued to pay him no attention whatsoever, and the row of chairs where his men sat, equally divided between irritation and boredom. They had been waiting for some time, and there was nothing to do.

Finally Hogan stopped pacing. "We have to get out of here," he said. "We haven't destroyed that ammo dump yet."

"I think the ammo dump's the least of our worries," said Kinch dryly.

"You're right, Kinch. The fuel depot first, then the ammo dump." He strode over to the counter, and rang the bell. "Excuse me," he said. "I want to speak to whoever's in charge."

The taller receptionist replied without looking up. "Not available."

"Not good enough," replied Hogan briskly. "I don't know what kind of service you think this is, but I'm not at all satisfied. We can't wait all day, you know."

"I don't mind if we do," muttered Newkirk.

Hogan gave him a reproving look. "That's the wrong attitude altogether, Newkirk. The sooner we get everything settled, the sooner we get the new tunnel started."

There was a moment of astonished silence from his men. Kinch spoke first. "Colonel, I don't think I heard you correctly."

"Gotta have a tunnel, Kinch."

"You do know where we are, don't you, Colonel?"

"I sure do, Kinch. That's why I want to get started. It's going to be a very long tunnel."

He raised one eyebrow and gave Kinch a grin, then met Newkirk's eye and jerked his head slightly towards the shorter girl. Newkirk looked from LeBeau to Kinch.

"He's gone mad," he murmured. "Oh, well, it was bound to happen eventually."

He got up, and went to lean on the counter. "So, darling," he started, "what time do you finish work? Because I was thinking, perhaps you could show me round, maybe go somewhere nice for dinner, bit of dancing, then back to my place."

She gave him a cool stare, without speaking. It didn't discourage him. "Or your place, whichever you like. Suppose we introduce ourselves. My name's Peter."

"Forget it, Newkirk," said LeBeau, coming up behind him. "You can see she's not interested. I'm Louis," he added, turning to the girl. "And I can cook you a meal that you will never forget. And then..."

"LeBeau," said Newkirk irritably, "didn't anyone ever tell you it's not polite to barge into the queue?"

"Alright, you two, that's enough," Hogan interrupted. "I can't take you anywhere. Go and sit down, and behave yourselves."

Carter had approached the counter. "Excuse me," he said diffidently. "Can you tell me if we have to sit an exam?" The taller girl regarded him with a puzzled air. He stumbled on. "Only I don't do so good in exams. I get nervous." She shook her head, and waved him off.

"Carter, don't bother the lady with unimportant stuff like that," said Kinch, joining in the fun. "What I want to know is, what's the radio reception like? The World Series kicks off next week."

Behind him, Newkirk and LeBeau were still arguing. "I'm telling you, she's French," said LeBeau.

"You're havin' a laugh, mate," Newkirk replied. "I know an English bird when I see one."

"Guys!" Hogan's voice cut across the growing pandemonium. "Keep it down. People are trying to work." He turned back to the counter. "I'm sorry about this. They get so excited when they're in a new place. Tell you what, you get the boss out here, get us processed and we'll be out of your hair in no time."

A few seconds of calm ensued, then Carter piped up again. "Excuse me, is there a physical? I don't do so good on those either. My heart rate goes up when I'm stressed."

"Carter!" Kinch pushed him back towards the chairs.

The two receptionists exchanged looks, then the little one left the room for a moment. She returned, followed by a neatly dressed, inconspicuous little man; the perfect civil servant.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting so long," he said. "Now, who will be going first?"

Predictably, there were no volunteers. Hogan looked around at his men. "LeBeau?"

"I'm not going before he does," said LeBeau, jerking his chin at Newkirk. "He can't be trusted around a pretty girl."

"Oh, that's rich, coming from the pocket-sized Casanova," Newkirk snapped back, and they were off again.

Hogan called them to order, then turned to the others. "Carter, what about you?"

Carter stared at him, wide-eyed.

"No, that's not such a good idea," Hogan said thoughtfully. "Exam nerves. Stress. Very bad for him."

"Guess that only leaves me, Colonel," said Kinch.

"This way, please," said the clerk.

As Kinch, with a worried look, started to follow, Hogan held up his hand. "Just one moment, please. Don't the rules state that each new arrival is entitled to have present an officer of equal or higher rank, of their own choice, during all interviews? Article one hundred and fifty-seven, subsection F, paragraph twelve."

"You know the regulations?" asked the clerk, in a slightly awed voice.

"I'm expected to know this stuff. Part of my job," said Hogan smugly. "But please feel free to check." As the tall receptionist went to the bookshelves that lined the wall, he added, "Regulations, volume thirty-seven."

She ran her finger along the shelf. Then she checked again. "We only have thirty-two volumes of regulations," she said unhappily.

Hogan and Kinch exchanged looks. "They only have thirty-two volumes," said Kinch, shaking his head.

"You just can't get competent staff these days," Hogan sighed. "I blame the war."

Carter pushed forward. "You mean, I've been trusting these people to tell me about exams and things, and they don't even know all the rules?" He pressed his hand to his side, and swayed a little. "I don't feel well," he whispered.

Newkirk rushed to help him. "Now look what you've gone and done," he threw at the clerk. "You better sit down, Andrew. Just take a few deep breaths, and think calm thoughts. All this anxiety's not good for him, you know."

"It's very inconsiderate," said LeBeau, with a reproachful glance at the shorter girl. "I thought better of you. As far as I'm concerned, it's over. Newkirk, you can have her."

"Don't want her," replied Newkirk. "One thing I can't stand in a woman is heartlessness."

Kinch was not paying attention. He had been deep in thought. "Excuse me, Colonel," he said suddenly, "but if you're the senior officer for the rest of us, who's going to sit in on your interview?"

"That's a good point, Kinch," murmured Hogan, as if the idea had not struck him till then.

The two receptionists, who were leafing nervously through various volumes of the regulations, looked at each other, and then at the clerk, who had started to fidget.

"I'm afraid I don't quite remember the exact wording..." he began.

"You don't remember?" Hogan stared at him, outraged. "It's only the most important regulation in the entire fifty-seven volumes."

"Fifty-seven? You're saying there are fifty-seven?" the man stammered.

"I don't think he believes you, Colonel," said Kinch. He folded his arms, gazing at the clerk with the air of a public prosecutor who was just about to clinch the case.

"He doesn't have to take my word for it," replied Hogan. "Why don't you check with your bosses? Only then they'll have to know that you haven't been keeping up with the regulations. And I don't know whether you want that to happen."

The clerk hesitated. "I think we can trust your word," he said at last. "Perhaps we can organise something."

"Remember, I get to choose the officer," said Hogan. "Anyone I want, right?"

The man's shoulders slumped. "Right."

"You got someone in mind, sir?" asked Newkirk.

"Well," said Hogan slowly, "I just wondered if perhaps Colonel Crittendon might be available."

Surprise held everyone quiet for a few seconds; then Kinch murmured. "But Colonel Crittendon isn't..." He trailed off.

"There's nothing in the regulations that says he has to be. They can just get him here for the interview, and then send him back. Colonel Rodney Crittendon, RAF," he added helpfully.

The clerk was looking thoroughly unhappy. "Crittendon, did you say?" He turned to the tall girl. "Check the list," he whispered.

"What list is that, Colonel?" Kinch muttered.

"That, Kinch, is the blacklist of people they don't want to see here until it's absolutely necessary," said Hogan, under his breath. "Every administrative organisation has a list. In fact, I have a list, and Crittendon's name is the first one on it. Not that it ever did me any good."

The girl was consulting a large black-covered book. "Colonel Crittendon," she said. "He's on the list." She looked up at the clerk with something approaching panic.

He turned back to Hogan. "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer someone a bit more senior?" he faltered. "How about General Sherman? I'm sure he'd be happy to oblige. Or perhaps the Duke of Wellington?"

"Crittendon or nobody," replied Hogan firmly. "Can't have just anyone, you know."

The staff went into a little huddle behind the counter. Hogan waited, looking pleased with himself.

Finally, after what seemed to be a fairly heated discussion, the clerk came forward. "It seems there may have been a small administrative error," he said. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but I'm afraid we'll have to send you back."

Five men gazed at him with expressions ranging from astonishment to indignation.

"Blimey, and we've been wasting our time here since - How long we been here, LeBeau?" Newkirk exploded.

"Too long," replied LeBeau furiously. "When I think of all the things we could have been doing...! I was going to make tripe in white wine tonight."

"So you're saying we could have been worse off, then."

"You're a barbarian, Newkirk, from a barbaric country filled with gastronomic Philistines."

"Okay, men, keep it down," Hogan interrupted. "These things happen. You can't be too hard on these people."

"Does that mean the exam is off?" Carter broke in. "Darn it, I wasted a perfectly good panic attack. Some people just have no consideration."

"I know, Carter, and I don't blame you - any of you - for being annoyed. But let's just put it down to general incompetence," said Hogan. "We can discuss compensation later," he added, smiling pleasantly at the staff.

A moment later, the waiting room was gone, in a cloud of gritty dust.

Hogan dropped to the floor, covering his head with his arms. It seemed an eternity, but was probably only a few seconds, before the noise of falling earth in the tunnel subsided to a trickle. Cautiously, he raised his head.

"Is everyone okay?" he asked.

Newkirk's voice reached him first; he was swearing, comprehensively and with extraordinary creativity, and, between curses, issuing lurid threats about what he intended to do to Carter at the earliest opportunity. LeBeau joined in, adding blood-chilling Gallic imprecations to Newkirk's time-honoured Anglo-Saxon utterances.

"Well, I said I was sorry," Carter protested, yet again.

"Kinch?" said Hogan.

"Here, Colonel," Kinch replied. "Looks like we all made it. But it's pretty serious. I don't know how far back the cave-in goes, but there's no way we can get back to the barracks."

"Then we'll just have to take the emergency exit, and get back into camp from outside," said Hogan.

"It means digging," said Kinch doubtfully, "but it doesn't look too bad in that direction."

"Make Carter do the digging," said LeBeau.

"With his fingernails," added Newkirk.

"No, we'll take turns," Hogan decided. "Carter, LeBeau, you go first. And be careful."

"Do you think it'll collapse again?" asked Kinch.

"I hope not, Kinch," replied Hogan. He was smiling a rueful little smile in the darkness. To himself, very quietly, he added, "With any luck, we've just been added to the list..."