I was rudely pulled back from this reverie. Judd was no longer alone on the stage. There was a stocky-looking man carrying a leather satchel. His face was covered by a gray ski mask that made a jarring contrast to his neat dark suit. He picked up the tray of DVDs and moved offstage to the left. Judd followed in agitation as the laser continued to cut.
Just as I lost sight of them a taller man, in navy blazer and gray slacks and also masked, leaped onto the stage from somewhere at the left. Several members of the audience started to rise and he gestured menacingly. "Sit down! Stay in your seats, heads down!"
The man twisted the lockdown handle. He spun the optics assembly on its axis, pointing the beam at the audience. "Raise your head, I'll blow it off!" The voice was harsh, sharp. The beam swept across the row of seats just in front of the audience. There were puffs of flame and the acrid smell of burning fabric.
Peering from a crunched position, I suddenly saw the truth. This laser was no domestic tool, delivered by Home Depot and obedient to the control of a loving parent. What faced me was a gun, a weapon, waved by a madman or a terrorist. The red guide beam flashed in my eyes as the beam swept back and forth across the auditorium. Invisible bullets came tearing toward me, flaring and sparking where they hit. I heard a cry of pain to my left. Someone apparently had left part of her body visible above the seat backs. The man on stage scanned the laser back and forth and the air filled with smoke and ash. My eyes watered, drawing a breath made me feel like choking.
The beam was invisible, but not its effect: when it touched the upholstery and the metal chair backs, knots of fire puffed up. The stench of scorched fabric was joined by the smell of burning flesh - a hellish barbecue out of control. Not a typical morning at our peaceful research lab.
I was scared, crouched between the seats, hearing the buzz of whispers from alarmed audience members. To my left I could see people on hands and knees, wedged between the rows, trying to get every part out of sight of the burning, slicing beam.