Being threatened is always a good sign!
It can be. The same AI's keep trying to extort money and send threats, but they appear to be empty ones. I built my two huge fighters and fleeted them with huge empty hulls (with engines, ofc). I went looking for a fight, but the ones with the biggest mouths didn't declare. I went with attacking the closest enemy, the Torians.
On paper, they should be wiping the floor with my limp and dying body. In reality, I have their ass and am packaging it up for return delivery. I've lost a total of one planet and have gained 7 so far. My main limitation is distance to target with my slow transports. I need more tech in pretty much everything, but the Torians have been kind enough to leave some behind at every planet I've taken.
Their fighters in route have taken several of my fully loaded transports down before they could strike. If I had better sensor tech, I'd be able to see them before choosing my path. Those are the breaks.
My empty hulls aren't gaining as much experience as they did in my other game, but that makes sense. The fighters I'm up against are considerably weaker. I also don't have the engine and miniaturization tech move around very well. Those things will change as time goes on.
The AI have been taking the minors out for some weeks and I haven't even met them all. Hopefully, they'll leave some for me.
Year 2 will be closing soon and I'm still in last place in everything except economy and population. I'm not first in any stat, but I'll be climbing the ladder as I take more planets.
My focus for now is to get my empty hulls leveled up so they can be upgraded to fighters. Gaining planets and tech along the way is a nice bonus.