"Heaven isn't full but the car park is. Since 1993 blessed souls have been driving around looking for a space."
— Loads More Lies to Tell Small Kids
A character shuffles off the mortal coil to join the choir invisible. They travel through the Tunnel of Light and come out to find... a numbered ticket dispenser and a long line
Welcome to the Afterlife Bureaucracy. Many movies have shown the afterlife to be just an extension of the bureaucratic nightmare that plagues the living anytime they have any dealings with an official agency. Complete with "Now Serving XX (XXXXXXXXXXXXXX...)" signs, waiting rooms and obstructive bureaucrats
. But if the departed hope to get their Final Reward, they had better make damn sure all the "i"s are dotted and the "t"s are crossed.
Chinese mythology views heaven and the afterlife as a bureaucracy patterned on their own governmental systems (or was it the other way around?), and ruled over by the benevolent Jade Emperor, making this idea probably Older Than Feudalism
, or older.
May overlap with Hell of a Heaven
. Do not confuse it with Department Heaven
. May overlap with Don't Fear The Reaper
As a Death Trope, several if not all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Anime & Manga
- YuYu Hakusho; in fact, Yusuke's first reaction is to ask "Is this the stock market?"
- Dragon Ball Z: King Yemma is in charge. And his desk is made of mahogany.
- Each world has a Guardian. The Guardians answer to the Kai of their galactic quadrant, who answers to the Grand Kai of their galaxy, who answers to the Supreme Kai of their universal quadrant, who answers to the Grand Supreme Kai of the entire universe. However, since the Grand Supreme Kai and 3 of the Supreme Kai have been taken out of existence altogether, the government which is now ruled by the relatively inexperienced Eastern Supreme Kai has been downsized. As he was never meant to watch over the universe as a whole, this is an adequate reason as to why the Earth's Special Forces almost never receive any divine help aside from King Kai.
- Bleach: Soul Society is run this way, with authority from the (absentee) Soul King delegated to the (civilian) Central 46, which in turn commands the (military) Gotei 13. The bureaucracy has been in place for at least 1000 years and is just about as crusty and hide-bound as you'd expect. It's not an exaggeration to say that a good 75% of all the nonsense that goes down in Bleach is because of Soul Society being poorly governed. In the second half of the series, this is slowly changing as the Gotei becomes more open, and as Kyouraku makes reforms in the wake of Yamamoto's death.
- Saiyuki, being based on a classical Chinese novel, has an extensive version. Particularly of interest is Saiyuki Gaiden, set mostly in the heavenly realms and where most characters are Celestial Bureaucrats of one form or another.
- Yami No Matsuei is based upon this trope. The main characters are all dead people who serve as bureaucrats for the Afterlife Bureaucracy.
- Black Butler seems to have one too. This be an homage to Yami no Matsuei.
- Ah! My Goddess's Heaven is full of celestial sysadmins. The episode where Belldandy gets demon powers plays up this trope.
- Edaniel describes the afterlife like this in Bizenghast.
- The monsters of Slayers have one; all we really know about it is that Xellos, despite being more powerful than any of Shaburanigdo's lieutenants(he was apparently created specifically for The War of the Monster's Fall), ranks well below them.
- Hotori dies and finds the Japanese Heaven is like this in Soredemo Machi Wa Mawatteiru.
- In Valerian, the celestial hierarchy based on planet Hypsis appears to be an extremely capitalist enterprise. Each pantheon's position in the hierarchy is determined by the gross national product of the planet it oversees, and it's possible for the enterprise to fail, which leads to stripping divinity and immortality from the pantheon's members, and banishing them to the infernal depths of the Point Central to work off their debts, as happened to one Mr. L.C.F. Sat. The members of the Earth's pantheon, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are a dilapidated business near collapse, and harassed by their colleagues over the Earthlings' habit of meddling with the affairs of others.
- The depiction of Hell and the Norse Afterlife seem to work this way in Ninja High School.
- In the Death Jr series, Death is the CEO of the corporation that handles the afterlife. The bureaucracy happens later (endless queues of souls, reams of forms) when Bureaucracy, the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, tries to take over.
Films — Animated
- Hades' realm in the Disney version of Hercules approaches this: though the place where the afterlife go is a chaotic swirling pool of ghosts and goo, when the dead enter Hades, a little sign clicks in: "1000001 served."
Films — Live-Action
- The Japanese film Afterlife.
- Beetlejuice. Staffed by the ghosts of people who committed suicide.
- Defending Your Life has an afterlife of prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and a huge legal tangle.
- A Matter of Life and Death, known in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven.
- The 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which features bungled soul reaping by an officious (psychopompous?) angel known only as 7013, as part of a rather airline-esque afterlife.
- Wristcutters: A Love Story.
- In the film Liliom (and the Hungarian play it's based on), the eponymous character discover's after his suicide that Heaven is exactly like the police station he was in earlier in the film, from his treatment by the man at the desk to the sign on the wall that says "No Spitting".
- In the 1946 Abbott and Costello ghost comedy, The Time of Their Lives, after the curse that prevents Patriot Horatio Prim (Lou Costello) from ascending to Heaven is lifted, he is still excluded — because Heaven is "Closed for Washington's Birthday."
- The Tooth Fairy: Not afterlife, but still (usually) invisible to humans.
- A Life Less Ordinary saw heaven as this, complete with archangels as harassed middle-managers.
- The Adjusters in The Adjustment Bureau are supernatural beings in charge of human destinies... and they dress like 50's office clerks and work in what appears to be a huge chancellery.
- Nick's introduction to the RIPD takes place in an office, outside of which are walls full of filing cabinets as far as the eyes can see.
- Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis, or Solomon's Key. This foundational text of Western occultism/magic presents a very complicated government of demons that can be summoned to do the magician's bidding. Dukes, Princes, Generals, Viceroys, and many others hold rank and administer specific functions in Hell.
- Les jeux sont faits (The Game is Up or The Chips Are Down depending on the translation) by Sartre, written in 1943.
- Tom Holt's Here Comes The Sun is entirely based on this trope. For example, a complaints form consists of a pure, 24-carat gold slab several acres in area, which is filled with so much bureaucratic crap that the actual complaint needs to be chiseled in microscopic writing in a millimetre-wide spot.
- C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters is one of the earliest English-language examples (though he acknowledges a 17th-century example in the prologue), featuring a Diabolical Bureaucracy (given the focus of the book, we never learn what heaven is like). In this case, Hell's bureaucracy was created by taking what Lewis saw as good qualities, such as a sense of humor about oneself, and seeing what was left.
- The Dark Heavens series is based around ancient Chinese mythology, and hence contains numerous references to the celestial bureaucracy, with one character complaining about how much paperwork his quarter of heaven requires.
- Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, is built on this trope from start to finish.
- The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson features the Bardo (the afterlife of Tibetan folklore), which, in reflection of the growing influence of China in the living world, is gradually taken over by the Chinese Celestial Bureaucracy.
- Inferno by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, which is a modern re-imagining of Dante's Inferno, is one big, strange bureaucracy whose motives the protagonist puzzles out during the course of the story.
- Eoin Colfer's The Wish List features Saint Peter griping about how computer programmers never get past the Pearly Gates, so he has to do all of his records manually. The staff of Hell dread being reassigned to somewhere even worse than they already are.
- Mark Twain's Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven includes a part where he lands in an alien heaven and has to deal with the bureaucracy to get to the heaven for Earth.
- Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series has one of these. Part of the new Death's personal problems with the system is that babies born of rape or incest are automatically set at the half-good half-bad line, meaning any stillborns or crib death babies are automatically sent to purgatory to become office accountants. (Until he fixes it.)
- In Journey to the West, there is even a list in the underworld dictating who goes there. Guess whose names Sun Wukong crosses off when he storms in.
- Robert A. Heinlein's JOB: A Comedy of Justice plays with this concept. The protagonist goes to heaven after being subjected to the torments of Job, only to discover that God and Satan are merely junior deities in a massive celestial hierarchy, playing games with their mortal "pawns" in a manner deliberately analogous to children playing with dolls. God is then punished for failing to provide his creations with fair and consistent rules.
- Also, the Heaven that the protagonist reaches is run in this manner, with the various angels and saints acting as bureaucrats and civil servants.
- The Underworld in Percy Jackson and the Olympians is victim to this. There's a long wait for departed souls, and Charon really wants to have a pay-raise.
- Even the EZ-Death line is backed up in The Last Olympian. Those with special circumstances, which is everyone else, are put on the very slow Attendant On Duty lines.
- The Kushiel's Legacy novels give Chi'in people this version of the afterlife, since they are a stand-in for Chinese. But the very good people get to skip the bureaucracy.
- Heaven in Andrei Belyanin's My Wife Is A Witch duology is run by a bureaucracy. The protagonist's personal angel Ancipher has to file daily reports on his charge's activities. In the second book, it is revealed that Hell has decided to adopt a similar system, and his demon Pharmason is not at all happy with all the deadlines and reports in triplicate.
- Hell, in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. This is apparently fairly recent, as the obstructive bureaucrat to end all obstructive bureaucrats who... "improved" things had only arrived in the mid-1800s. This is Played for Laughs, used to set up at least two impressive moments for Cabal, and one heartwarming scene (a rare thing, in that book).
- Michelle Scott's Lilith Straight Series depicts hell as an enormous office building with industrial, gray carpeting, flickering fluorescent lights, and labyrinthine hallways. The Devil is a Bad Boss whose Beleaguered Assistant is constantly buried under paperwork.
- This trope taken to its logical extreme perfectly describes the Auditors of Reality, who are essentially bureaucrats who oversee the minutiae of the Magical Underpinnings of Reality. Unfortunately for all sapient life, they despise anything resembling creativity or individuality, since it increases the amount of paperwork they have to do.
- In J. R. R. Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle", the protagonist is a bit casual in preparing for his demise, so he is assigned to a sort of purgatory. After he learns to be better organized, the entities in charge send him on further.
- The afterlife in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess can sometimes work like this.
- Dead Like Me features a character who gets turned into a grim reaper and joins the bureaucratic mess of being a psychopomp. One episode (the cut scene episode) explicitly lampshades this.
- The Underworld as depicted in The Middle Man is a giant office building with files in the back room and a Deadpan Snarker at the desk position.
- In an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, "The Tale of Station 109.1", the main character is mistaken for a dead person at their local Celestial Bureaucracy. The clerk there, played by Special Guest Gilbert Gottfried, tells him "I don't make mistakes! When I was alive, I worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles!"
- A Turkish series called Ruhsar plays with this: Essentially, the afterlife is mentioned (since the audience never sees anything beyond the "lobby") to adhere to the traditional standards Heaven and Hell. But they are both managed by a Celestial Bureaucracy. Some episodes revolved around the Bureaucratic nature of the afterlife such as the titular character working in a "Heaven Modernisation Committee" or having run-ins with the Obstructive Bureaucrat Angels after accidentally violating a regulation.
- The afterlife in Drop Dead Diva.
- An episode of Murder Most Horrid has The Grim Reaper complaining endlessly about this. They gave her a makeover because they thought she was too grim for modern customers.
- The heaven in Supernatural is like this, at least for the angels. And Zachariah can be one scary-ass careerist.
- Deliberately Invoked by the Ferengi in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; since the Ferengi Hat is being cunning, and placing wealth above all else (including family), this is how the Ferengi view whatever they have in place of heaven; and they strive to get to their Heaven (or, as they call it, The Divine Treasury)
- Part of the hard to follow plotline of Jethro Tull's 1973 Concept Album, "A Passion Play", concerns something of a Celestial Bureaucracy involving one "G. Oddie And Son" running Heaven as bureaucratic office managers. This theme would have been carried over into the next year's proposed film project which became the "WarChild" album.
Mythology and Religion
- Traditional Chinese religion. For starters, their head God is literally an Emperor (The Jade Emperor), and the afterlife is run like the Old Chinese Empire, with the Emperor, his courtiers, various ministries and their respective ministers handling various departments regarding celestial/mortal life, and governors (with the Mortal Chinese Emperor being governor of the Mortal world)
- This is primarily the reason why the Chinese believed the Emperor had the "Mandate of Heaven." Just as an Emperor would appoint a Governor, then probably the Jade Emperor mandated that the Mortal Emperor be governor of this world. Additionally, this too is why Chinese don't really put much stock in Royal Houses. Governorship of a Province in Imperial China was not hereditary, and therefore the Mortal Emperor's governorship of this world isn't either. Hence Heaven can withdraw the "Mandate." How do they know a mandate is withdrawn? By the simple matter of the Emperor being incompetent/corrupt, whereby it is the peasants' right to remove him, and replace him with either another noble house, a commoner, or even a foreign conquering barbarian as with the case of Kublai Khan and the Manchus.
- Everyone in the Jade Emperor's Afterlife Empire becomes the God of his associated job/responsibilities. The Jade Emperor's cook? God of the Kitchen. The Palace Guards? Gods of Guarding/Gates/doorways. Hell, if the Celestial Empire upgraded, some of The Jade Emperor's webmasters might be Gods of Webmastering or something.
- Mortals are often "hired" too. Some scholars believe Zao Jun (The Kitchen God) was an actual person in early Chinese history, possibly some chef with god-tier skills. The Ancient Chinese must have believed the Gods would want such a bloke to feed them.
- The Chinese Place of Judgement resembles an Ancient Chinese Court of Law/Justice, with Yen Lo as the Lord/God of Judgement. Funnily, depictions of judgement by the Imperial Chinese features Yen Lo, in traditional judge's attire, seated on a desk cluttered with paperwork. He is surrounded by supernatural bureaucrats, record-makers, plaintiffs, jury, and even demonic lictors (court of justice guards).
- The soul of the departed? Well, obviously the defendant, against a Mirror that plays instances of specific actions in his life. Whats more, you get to have a supernatural lawyer! Who knows the laws of heaven, and unlike in most religions, you can argue your way out of a sentence in Chinese Hell. And Chinese Hell (as Heaven and Hell are one in the Chinese Afterlife) resembles, again, an Old Chinese torture chamber/prison, whereby you serve your (exceedingly brutal) punishment for a given amount of time (not unlike the mortal penal system), and then you're released either in the afterlife or you get reborn.
- In China it's a common custom to burn offerings known as Hell Bank Notes. They're meant for the deceased to spend in the afterlife.
- It's also amusing to note that a number of Chinese and Indian near-death experiences include being informed by clerks that there has been a "clerical error" and "someone else with your name was supposed to die today."
- In The Aeneid Aeneas travels through the underworld to Elysium, where he finds his father, Anchises — who is numbering souls on a tablet. So he's pretty much got a clipboard and is taking the names of everyone in Heaven.
- Most variations of Heaven found in the Abrahamic Religions have shades of this trope, despite there being little to no definite proof of this found in the major Holy writings. Most famous would be the Christian image of St. Peter and the Pearly Gates, sitting at a high desk and letting people in based on the information in some great book. God or Jesus will sometimes fill this role. As well, God did give Moses the Ten Commandments (as well as many other laws and rules) while on that mountaintop...
- The biblical Book of Revelation claims that at the End of the World, all humanity are gathered to be judged, and "the books were opened" (sounds like accounting to me) and "the Book of Life was opened", and all those whose names aren't in the latter are chucked in the Lake of Fire. No mention of pearly gates or St. Peter, though.
- In Egyptian Mythology, in order to gain a eternal life in the paradise, there's are a huge number of prerequisites to fill, as you need to be mummified, prayed to, have a tomb with a name and food tribute made by your loved ones just to be judged, in which you need to have an unimpeachable life to avoid have your soul eaten by a chimera, and after that, there's still a very long and dangerous journey to reach the paradise.
- In gnostic works, the Archons are pretty much this, being heavenly agents with a complex hierarchy that deal with the souls after they die. Unfortunately, they eat said souls. The Aeons are also a complex hierarchy, but they don't deal with the souls that manage to transcend the Archons.
- The central premise of Old Harry's Game, a workplace comedy set in Fire and Brimstone Hell. Heaven is apparently even more of a mess from what we see in-story, since Satan is slightly less of a Pointy-Haired Boss than God.
- In The Odyssey of Runyon Jones by Norman Corwin, a nine-year old boy traverses the cosmos, pleading with its various department heads for info concerning his dead dog who has been sent to "Curgatory."
- Exalted includes a Celestial Bureaucracy, and player characters may be part of it. However, it differs from most examples of the Trope in that, while it runs Creation (the mortal world), it has little to do with the afterlife of mortals beyond filing the requisite paperwork to ensure the process of their Reincarnation goes smoothly (assuming that mortals don't have some strong attachment to their former lives, since actual lingering ghosts don't fall under the Celestial Bureaucracy's jurisdiction, which turns out to be a pretty significant crack to fall through).
The Celestial Order, as it's called, also has a bit of a problem with unemployment. This is partly a holdover from a time when Creation had been subjected to a series of cataclysms, and thus Heaven shut their doors to prevent the massive influx of gods whose jobs and homes in the mortal world had been destroyed. When it turned out Creation had survived after all, Heaven was also left with the difficult task of working with and around the Spirit Courts, local unions formed by gods and elementals who realised that they had been written off by the higher ups.
- The pantheon of Kara-tur, the Forgotten Realms' fantasy counterpart to East Asia, is actually called the Celestial Bureaucracy.
- In Nomine features a form of bureaucracy for both Heaven and Hell. Heaven is ruled by the Seraphim Council, and also has Dominic's angels running around checking for heresy. Hell has Asmodeus's demons enforcing the rules of "The Game", but cheating is often encouraged.
- It's been said of the setting that both Heaven and Hell are feudal bureaucracies, but the Devil is, quite literally, in the details.
- Scion has a game extension dealing with the Celestial Bureaucracy. The main Chinese gods are featured and may be chosen as parents of the player characters.
- Dungeons & Dragons: The Nine Hells have Infernal Bureaucracy, and they sort out the damned dead who arrives in their place. It's also run like a marketing firm: if you're a devil, the more souls you damn to hell, the higher you rise in the bureaucracy. Devils fear oblivion more than they fear demotion. All in all, the sourcebook that details this sounds like it's written as a satire of mega-corporations.
- Feng Shui has the traditional Chinese Hells, and it mentions in one sourcebook that the evil imperial eunuch sorcerers of 69 AD are trying to contact and bribe the eunuchs of the Heavenly Court. They haven't succeeded yet, and they think it's probably because they haven't come up with a big enough bribe.
- NoŽl Coward's Blithe Spirit alludes to this; the ghost of the male lead's first wife refers to filling in a bunch of forms so she can come back to haunt him when he hosts a seance at his house.
- Jade Empire, being set in a fantastic equivalent of Imperial China, has its own Celestial Bureaucracy which is played for comic effect. In one instance, a minor god assigned by the bureaucracy to tabulate the karmic effects of the player's actions appears to him/her, in order to complain about all the work you've caused him to have to do.
- In fact he was overwhelmed and demoted to finance, where he now tries to show his superiors how efficient he is by acting as your private store.
- He's not the only member of the Celestial Bureaucracy helping you out. Far from it. Turns out Mad Scientist Kang the Mad is the minor inventor's deity Lord Lao who was slumming it on earth with a case of amnesia.
- Black Whirlwind apparently has an entire department dedicated to recording all his karmic disruptions. And so do you, after the aforementioned minor god's disruption.
- Not to mention that the whole problem of the game started when the Brothers Sun defeated and imprisoned the deity in charge of rain...who also was in charge of escorting the dead to their rest. Yes, it saved the Empire in the short term. In the long term? Nice job breaking it.
- The standard game over in King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow.
- Afterlife is entirely based off this concept - The player has to plan out both heaven and hell to be, respectively, as pleasant and torturous as they can be. The game includes workforce management (angels and demons), bank loans (the currency is pennies from heaven, with the banks of heaven and hell offering different terms), placing development zones (for the seven deadly sins), and a dry, worldly demon in a business suit as one of your advisors.
- The main character of Grim Fandango is an employee at the Department of Death, which guides souls to the afterlife. It's a post-mortem travel agency.
- Touhou loves this trope. At one point, hell's budget is dangerously in the red, and so it opens up stands in the world of the living in an attempt to balance the books.
- Hell itself has the rather amusing title of "The Ministry of Right and Wrong" and they publish guidebooks.
- The celestial realm of Dept Heaven is, ironically enough, one of these; from the glimpses the players get over the series, it is a strictly hierarchy-based realm controlled by a small council who are the gods' proxies, particularly in Riviera, where the gods are in absentia. And thanks to the series' villain, the system is corrupt as all get-out, too.
- In Beyond Atlantis, while traveling in ancient China the player enters Hell to acquire an item, discovering it is a bureaucracy run by bored demons. The lost souls of those who died trying to cut through the red tape still wander the area.
- In The Legend of Kyrandia III: Malcolm's Revenge, Malcolm arrives in the lobby of such a bureaucracy and is made to wait in line behind a Captain Ersatz of Elvis Presley before he is able to progress to Hell.
- In Sam & Max: Freelance Police, Hell looks like a regular office building with cubicles and the like. It can be assumed that bureaucracy is also implemented there.
- The Underwhere in Super Paper Mario. The demons here are referred to as D-Men, wear business suits, and are constantly concerned about keeping everything on schedule.
- Death in the Dark Waters fan campaign for Neverwinter Nights 2 is portrayed as a long-suffering bureaucrat who forgives your in-game deaths because he's too busy with paperwork to bother processing you into the afterlife.
- The Romance Game Ten Days With My Devil has human death and reincarnation managed by demons, responsible for making sure that humans meet their fated deaths and that their souls are transported to heaven, and angels, who cleanse the souls of dead humans and reincarnate them into new lives. The two races are each ruled by a king and keep track of the fates of humans using an electronic database.
- The Order of the Stick. This being a Dungeons & Dragons-based world, Death Is Cheap for adventurers (they get raised pretty regularly), so there are "fast track" procedures for repeat customers.
- Said "fast track" is a literal Revolving Door.
- The part of the afterlife where the more numerous recent dead who worship the Southern Gods go on death has a long line. Although that was after a pretty major battle.
- The Lawful Good afterlife (and possibly other afterlifes) is up a mountain, but the line to get in is in a different astral "place" depending on who you worshiped. It's like they've turned Heaven into the DMV...
- Misfile is based around a filing error within the celestial bureaucracy that genderswaps a boy and erases the past two years of another girl; the human world has been altered to accommodate the change and they are the only ones who remember how their lives should be.
- Irregular Webcomic! features a hierarchy of Deaths, who are periodically demoted, promoted, or fired by the Head Death. One memorable storyline involved all of the Deaths going on strike.
- Rhapsodies has the Department of Minor Nuisances, which is in charge of things like missing combs and traffic lights. Though when they are behind on various accounts they may resort to drastic measures.
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja plays with this; purgatory is an infinite diner where-in the dead must eat dishes symbolizing/made-from each of their sins before they can move on to the next (as yet unseen) stage of the afterlife. The real kicker? There's only one waiter in the whole place so the service is just terrible.
- The web novel A Trickster's Tale featured a "Department of Classifications" in Part 14. The protagonist, realizing this appears to be the processing hub for the afterlife, asks the clerk why it's so empty.'
- In College Humor's "God's Boss Craig", God is not in charge of heaven. He has a boss named Craig.
- Garfield then claims it was his first life, wrangling a full nine more lives for both him and Odie.
- However, there are hints that Heaven doesn't actually work like that, and God's just making up an excuse to show favoritism.
- The original pitch of Jimmy Two-Shoes stated the reason why Jimmy was in Miseryville in the first place was because an administrative error got him sent there. Whether or not this is still the case is currently unknown.
- In the "Shroud of Wally" episode of Dilbert, Dilbert is briefly killed and discovers that the afterlife is identical to his cubicle at work. Naturally, his engineer coworkers have one major concern:
Alice: You're telling me that the afterlife is a stinking CUBICLE?
Dilbert: I'm just telling you what I saw.
Loud Howard: How fast was the Internet connection?
Dilbert: I don't even know if it had an Internet connection.
Wally: Well, this raises many troubling questions about the Afterlife. First, how do you get your software upgraded?
Wally: I guess it was just the one question.