Ace remembered kneeling on the floor. It was not cold anymore, warm as it was with a thick sheen of his blood. Red poured out from his mouth and his bloodshot eyes.
The twelve hours of straining against heightened, crushing gravity had worn its toll on the little boy.
When he saw the blood, his stomach turned in disgust, but at the same time, he was drawn to it. It was warm, and warmth, he knew very, very little of.
"Get up, Ace." The biggest, oldest Ace grabbed little Ace's shoulder and raised him up.
Ace kept looking down at his blood in a lightheaded daze.
"Stop that." The oldest clone shook Ace, forcing his gaze up where their eyes met. "Or else you'll turn into a weirdo psycho."
"Huh…?" said Ace.
"Are your ears clogged or something?" the oldest clone peered at Ace's ears. Blood streamed from them too. "Oh yeah, they would be. Here-," The clone tapped Ace's forehead. The blood popped out of his ears, moved by telekinetic force. "Better?"
"Yes." Little Ace nodded.
"Then listen to me, alright?" said the biggest Ace. "Don't ever let me catch you looking down like that, like you belong in the dirt. Because trust me, you don't. None of us do.
Like father said, we're all special. But especially you. And what business do special people like us have staring at the ground, huh? That makes sense, yeah?"
"Yes." Little Ace nodded again.
"Good. Maybe you aren't so special in the head after all." Bigger Ace smiled and patted little Ace's shoulder. "Now stand up straight before father gets here."
Year after year passed filled with training, or 'trials' as father called them.
At first, they just involved pushing back against gravitational force. Then, they became harder and harder. Fights against live variants. And afterwards, being forced to consume their meat in its rawest, most disgusting state.
Exposure to poisons, electric shocks, and countless other types of beatings.
So many times, Ace left those tests looking down, beaten, bloodied, bruised in body and soul, teetering between the boundary of life and death.
And every single time, bigger Ace would grab his shoulder, raise him up, and tell him to stop looking down.
One day -
"Hey, wake up." Ace opened his eyes, awoken by gentle shakes. He rubbed his eyes as he got up from the bed of his tiny pod. "Brother…?"
Ace looked at the oldest version of him who, by now, truly was old. The eldest Ace looked to be over sixty now with thin, age worn limbs, sparse, thinning white hair, and wrinkles covering his hands, face, and feet that showed through the standard issue bodysuit all the Aces had to wear.
"Yeah, it's me. Look, we got a surprise. C'mere." Old Ace floated away, and little Ace followed.
All the Aces lived in their own pods which housed little more than their beds. Each of them had a few personal possessions to their name. Toys, a poster, maybe, and other miscellaneous things they kept in their pods, but most of the time, father had these confiscated because he did not like to breed the 'weakness of individuality'.
But every so often, other scientists, 'uncles' and 'aunts' as they were called, would come in and give the Aces something from the world outside the lab.
A mystery world that little Ace still knew nothing about. Old Ace apparently had even gotten a glimpse of it one day when one of the uncles led him out to sightsee.
Old Ace said it was uglier than he thought. That it was nothing but hot, dusty air and earth that looked broken beyond repair.
The uncle that let Old Ace out was never seen again, but all the Aces were envious of old Ace's unique experience. By now, there were twenty Aces, some male, some female, some growing older than others, some growing slower than others, but all of them were united in one shared hope: to see the outside world.
Old Ace's grim revelation was, therefore, taken as the ramblings of an older man that the rest of the Aces did not really believe in.
Especially since sometimes, uncles and aunts would talk about the outside world and how wonderful it was, filled with giant buildings and caped heroes and good foods. All the toys that the Aces got were from there, after all, and how could a barren wasteland produce all of that?
"Here." Old Ace led little Ace into the living room that connected to all the pods. There, all twenty Aces were huddled about.
All of the Aces were bigger than little Ace despite half of them being younger. They, like old Ace, grew fast. Little Ace, on the other hand, grew slow.
Little Ace hated that about himself. He was ten years old but he was still so tiny. Other Aces that were his age were already like the uncles and aunts - fully grown adults.
Little Ace wanted to get big and strong fast, too. But he was always the runt of the litter. Not that the Aces picked on him much. They knew they were all in this together.
Seeing each other suffer near daily from constant trials was more than enough motivation not to inflict the same pain on each other outside of them.
"What is that?" Little Ace's eyes widened when he saw a colorful pillar of red standing atop a large plate. Atop it was a single candle burning with a sad, dying flame.
"It's called a cake," said Old Ace. "You eat it to celebrate the day you were born, and apparently, all of us were born on the same day. Or maybe the uncles and aunts are being lazy, I don't know.
Regardless, it's something you eat."
"…Cake." Little Ace nodded, committing that name to his mind.
"This one is strawberry flavored, too," said Old Ace. He shrugged. "Though I imagine you have no idea what that tastes like."
"Strawberry." Little Ace nodded again.
"How did the uncle get this through father?" one of the Aces said, eyeing the large cake suspiciously. "Something might be in it."
"I already had a small bite before," said Old Ace. "It's fine. And a thousand times better than the slop we have to eat normally."
Most of the meals provided to the Aces were mushy white paste engineered with nutrients in mind, not taste. They also encouraged strong bodily growth and healing from the wounds they suffered routinely from their trials.
All of the Aces stared at the cake like hungry wolves, desperation gleaming in their white eyes. They glanced at Old Ace, the de facto leader they put in charge because he was the first among them.
"Go on. Start eating," said Old Ace.
The Aces rushed in, breaking the cake apart with their hands, shoveling food into their mouths. But they made sure not to take too much, being mindful to share with each other.
"Can I go and eat too?" said Little Ace, mouth watering. He looked up at Old Ace to find Old Ace was staring past the cake, into the distance.
"Yeah, yeah, go ahead," said Old Ace. He shook his head and patted Little Ace's shoulder.
"I'll save some for you," said Little Ace.
Old Ace shook his head sadly, and at the time, Little Ace did not know why. "Take my portion, Ace. You deserve it more. You're special, after all."
That night was when the final trial happened.
When all the Aces, all of them having honed their power and bodies to their absolute limits, were placed in an inescapable room. There, father told them it was now time to face their greatest foes yet: each other.
They were made to fight to the death. Only the last one standing would leave the room alive.
The cake they had was not to celebrate their births. It was to commemorate their deaths.
Memories that Ace did not know, memories he had buried deep down, under lock and key and chain and gate, were sundered open.
He did not remember the fighting. That was not important. He remembered -
"I knew it." Old Ace looked up at Little Ace. Old Ace was just an upper body now, his lower half having been severed during the final trial.
The thick, plated tiles of the room were painted red, drenched in gore. Severed limbs, chunks of bone, eyeballs, brain matter - all manner of viscera and broken body parts lay scattered in an artpiece of suffering and madness.
Little Ace stared down at Old Ace, his eyes glowing through a thick coating of blood on his face.
"I knew it…you're…special." Old Ace smiled at Little Ace.
Little Ace looked down at his crimson coated hands, hands coated with the lives of all of his brothers and sisters, and trembled. Tears began to well up from the corners of his eyes. Clear, pure tears that quickly tainted with the red on his face.
"Don't…cry." Old Ace reached his hand up and gentle patted Little Ace's arm. "Don't…look down. I told you - never…look down. You're special. Look…up."
Old Ace's hand fell to the ground, splashing on a pool of blood.
"I remember it all." Ace held out his hand, grabbing a punch from his clone. A shockwave of force echoed out, but Ace did not budge a single inch.
Ace's eyes were widened in the shock of recall, of breaking into a past he had kept locked away.
"Ah, you remember now?" Machine Mind's voice echoed from the clone's head. "Do you understand your place, then, my son? You, so special, ordained with the greatest compatibility to Superforce's DNA and blessed with the touch of the Blue Ring?
You may be imperfect, but you are imperfect only due to your mind. A mind that has grown tainted with individuality. Your body, however, is still near perfect, its potential merely held down by that weak mind of yours."
"I understand now," said Ace.
"You do?" The clone pulled back. Machine's Mind's voice was hopeful. "Then-,"
"I understand that you have to die. Everyone here does." Ace unleashed a punch at the clone's skull. A blue ring glowed at his chest, over where his heart was. Gleaming cerulean energy patterns filled his veins, making them visible through his skin and bodysuit.
The punch collided with the clone's forehead. Waves of blue energy coursed from the point of impact through the clone's head, caving the skull in like a hammer taken to an egg.
The clone fell backwards, the yolk of his skull oozing out in spilled grey matter. In the middle of the brain matter was a blinking golden orb - the control device that Machine Mind used.
"You do not understand, my son." Machine Mind's voice echoed from the orb. "The sheer potential you have. You were taken by Ember after you were deemed a research failure, but you were taken against my will. I always saw potential in you.
You can come back and lead the world into a new era. You just have to come back to me. You-,"
Ace crushed the orb under his foot. It crunched and spattered in mechanical failure. He turned his gaze to the corpse of his clone. A fainter blue ring glowed from its chest. Ace punched his fist into the ring and ripped out the clone's still beating heart.
He crushed the tender organ. Its gleaming blue blood flowed into Ace's skin, into his own veins, his own heart, fueling him with strength to carry out his purpose.