James Howell and his fellow recruits opened the wooden box and stared at the bomb inside. The clock showed that they had less than two minutes to stop it from exploding.
"Come on!" Howell yelled. "We have to do this!"
But the three could not figure out the last clue, which would allow them to silence the bomb that threatened them and the battleship Wisconsin in which they were standing. Frazzled, they could only watch as the last second disappeared from the clock.
The 9-year-old triplets from Kentucky were glad it was just a game.
The Wisconsin, berthed next to Nauticus in downtown Norfolk, Va., has seen its share of missions, but it has a different one this summer.
It is the game board for "Spy Ship: Operation Achilles Heel," an interactive who-might-do-it that can be answered only by looking for clues throughout the ship's decks, by dodging lasers and by stopping a spy determined to blow up the storied ship.
Last year, Stephen Kirkland, Nauticus executive director, and his crew designed a smaller mystery that proved popular with tourists.
The latest one is bigger in scale and more involved. It's a way to pull more people into one of the coolest and most unique attractions Kirkland says downtown has.
The Wisconsin, one of the largest and last battleships built by the Navy, earned five battle stars in World War II.
"Our mission is to introduce people to the battleship Wisconsin," Kirkland said. "If this is a way to introduce families and make it a unique visit, we will do that."
Last year's story line was set in 1945 off the coast of Iwo Jima, Japan. This year's takes place in 1952, off the coast of North Korea, where the Wisconsin actually saw combat action. Participants in the spy game begin with a map, a documentation book and instructions to report to the ship's wardroom. The map bears the signature of "Capt. Bruton," the ship's commander in 1952.
On the battleship, players watch a video that gives them background and an order: A Communist spy has been found onboard, and it is believed that he is not operating alone. The bad guys have planted a bomb. Follow clues throughout the ship to save the day.
The documentation book allows players to keep track of their answers to the clues. Recruits must be clever and should wear comfortable clothing. The spies have left clues in some of the trickiest and, sometimes, most cramped places.
The game allows people to visit parts of the ship, peeking into drawers and cabinets and other crannies, usually not open to the public.
Some of the clues are head-scratchers, which makes them more fun to try to figure out in a group. Kirkland said the game was designed that way.
"We make a point to give a group one map, so they have to share," he said.
For those not familiar with Navy culture and lingo, the game is a swift introduction.
The map instructs people to walk toward the bow (the front), starboard (the right), port side (left) and up ladders to the O2 and O3 levels (you'll figure those out) and into officers' country. Recruits will have helpers along the way, and a video occasionally will pop up with further instructions and advice.
Completing the game nonstop takes about an hour and a half, but players can take a break and come back.
The Howell triplets recently were in town to spend time with their grandmother when an aunt decided to take them to Nauticus.
One portion of the game instructed them to go into a shrouded hallway, where they had to dodge nonlethal laser beams that crisscrossed their path. The dark was too much for the agents.
"Is it scary?" one asked a nearby helper.
She assured them that it wasn't. So they trudged on, trying to save the ship.
A few minutes later, cleared of the beams, James looked at his brother and sister, ready to complete their mission.
"That was awesome!"