— And, finally, your Exaltedness, some good news.
— The third prospecting fleet has completed its survey of the Adania sector. Against expectations, they found a system with a life-bearing planet. A blue-and-green little thing around a yellow star. Just seven cycles away at maximum speed.
— Excellent, minister! A new planet to strip-mine. That is just the little boost that our economy needs. Any sentient life that might give us trouble?
— Well, as the system was out of the planned route, there wasn’t time for a full survey. However, they took some long-distance readings, and they believe there is most likely a class IV civilization present.
— Class IV, eh? Ehm… remind me?
— Of course your Prudence, forgive me. In this case, we see the beginnings of industrialization, large scale agriculture, but likely no knowledge of electronics or computation. Certainly no space travel.
— Hmpf, you call that sentient? Population size?
— At least a billion, your Beneficence.
— Well, we’d better bring a few of them home then. For study, and to please the conservationists. Who knows, maybe they’ll make good pets. Save about a million, and exterminate the rest. Dissolver cannons, I think. With the profit we expect to make here, I think we can afford the expense of giving them a painless death.
— Wonderfully charitable as always, your Divinity. I will give the orders immediately.
— Odd, that. Finding a civilization so close by, isn’t it minister? I wonder why we never spotted them before?
— I can have the observers look into the matter, if it please your Immortality.
— No, don’t bother. It soon won’t matter anyway.
— Minister, you look exhausted. Do sit down. You must find more time in your schedule to rest. It does the mind and body wonders. I had an excellent rest myself. I do recommend prioritizing it above all else.
— Pardon the interruption, your Eloquence, I have some disconcerting news.
— It’s about the planet we discussed in our last meeting.
— Hm? Oh yes! The habitable one with the savages. I’d nearly forgotten! What did we find? Anything useful? Some rare isotopes perhaps?
— Well, I’m afraid the colonization didn’t go as planned, your Well-roundedness.
— What? You said they were pre-industrial! The prospectors could’ve cleared that planet for us if they’d know there was any meaningful life on it.
— Ah, hm, yes. It seems that our intelligence was a little more optimistic than was perhaps warranted. When the colonization barge arrived, they found that the natives were actually a class V society.
— Ehm, that is, electronic communication, your Transcendence, nuclear weaponry. Even the beginnings of space travel, although only to their nearest satellite, so far.
— Do not presume to teach me, minister. I know the classification system.
— I beg eternally your forgiveness, your Elegance.
— Yes, yes. So, a small setback. Surely a single barge is still plenty to subdue a species that hasn’t yet managed to crawl beyond their own moons.
— Yes, this was the opinion of the barge’s Trierarch also. In fact, after one cycle, the clearing was already ahead of schedule, with the population sample safely aboard, and at least one sixth of the population cleared. The Trierarch made a very positive record just before the colonization force retired for a well deserved rest.
Then, when they awoke… well…
— Out with it, minister.
— Well, planetside, the natives had managed to crash one of our shuttles during the first cycle. An acceptable loss by any means. However, on awakening, our troops found that they had managed to master some of the more basic principles behind our technology.
— In one cycle?!
— Yes, your Sagacity. On awakening, our forces were faced with a small fleet of armed shuttles. A crude imitation of our designs, but very effective, considering the circumstances.
Meanwhile, the population sample had managed to break out of their confinement, and furthermore, to infest our onboard systems with some sort of self-replicating software artifact. Between this and the surprise attack, the Trierarch had no choice but to initiate the self-destruct protocols, and launch the escape vehicles. They could barely outrun the natives’ attack shuttles.
— How is this possible? These were supposed to be savages. It takes thousands of cycles to train our specialists to master those systems.
— Well, it appears, your Supreme Excellency, that these beings have something of a unique, ehm, metabolism. For whatever reason their biological rhythms are attuned to revolutions of their planet about its axis, rather than the cycles around its star.
— I don’t follow, minister.
— Forgive me, your Immaculate Notability, I am still struggling with this myself. Consider, our throneworld makes two revolutions about its axis for every cycle around its star, and similar values apply to any major centre of civilization in the galactic empire. For half a cycle we are shrouded in darkness. Thus, we sleep once per cycle, for half a cycle.
— Yes. I’m no simpleton, you know.
— By no means, your Splendidness. However, it appears that this planet revolves more than three hundred times for one orbit. Close to five hundred per cycle.
— Good heavens, I would not have thought such a planet habitable.
— Indeed, your Grace, certainly not for sentient life. In fact, we have always held that the required orbital characteristics explain why sentient life is so rare in the galaxy. Nevertheless, on this planet, life managed, somehow, to evolve to the point of sentience despite the very rapid fluctuations in temperature induced by their rotational period.
The prospectors were as surprised as you and I, but did not consider it more than a curiosity. However, when the population sample was transported aboard, it was found that for each such revolution, they sleep and wake. Hundreds of times every cycle.
— My word.
— Apparently these creatures only live for less than a hundred cycles.
— The poor souls, that’s less than an economical half-quarter. Well, all the more reason they shouldn’t put up much of a fight, I’d say. What with such short lifetimes, they’d be dead before they could learn anything of value.
— You are eminently correct of course, your Translucence. However, in this case it seems that their intelligence and, ehm, productivity, is accelerated by a similar rate. That is, they can accomplish in their rotational period roughly what we can in a cycle. Between one rest and the next, their farmers may till a field, their ministers may draft a law and their soldiers may fight a battle.
We now believe that the initial readings of the prospectors were more or less correct. When they passed, a half-quarter ago, their civilization was still nascent, barely class IV. However between that time and now, in only a-hundred cycles, their civilisation developed space-travel, global communication, powered flight, electronic computation…
— Good god what a curious affair. Well, the profits should still exceed the loss of a single barge. We had better make the best of the next attempt. We have three barges in dock at the throneworld, surely that will be enough. You said this planet was seven cycles away at half-light. Do you think we should send some of the Imperial Armada along just in case?
— Forgive the suggestion, your Holiness, but I fear you may not fully grasp the severity of the situation.
— Hm. Enlighten me.
— The barge crashed into one of their liquid water oceans. We expect that they will have salvaged it and accessed our records in under half a cycle. Moreover, these creatures are now entirely cognizant of the threat that we pose. In two cycles, we can expect them to be harvesting stellar plasma as an energy source. If they fully dedicate themselves, it will not take them as long as seven cycles to build a fleet that rivals the entirety of the Armada currently stationed at the throneworld. And, even if they learn nothing from the barge, the number of attack shuttles they could produce would still overwhelm the Armada.
Additionally, given that we decimated their population, we expect that they will not be content just to defend their world. Our most conservative estimates suggest that within ten cycles we may expect an invasion fleet to set off in our direction.
— Well, then we call in the whole fleet! Surely we must act decisively in containing this threat. All other matters can wait.
— I’m afraid your Majesty, that it would take fourteen cycles for that message even to reach the nearest detachment. At half-light, it would take them a further twenty-four to get to this planet. By that time, who knows how far they will have progressed.
— But. This cannot be. How can we protect the Empire from these barbarians? Has the Admiralty been informed?
— We have all been working without rest your Eminence. In fact, sleep is now a luxury we can ill afford.
— And what have you come up with?! What are the recommendations?
— We are so far exploring two lines of strategy, your Magnificence. The first, which I believe is optimistic, calls for us to put all resources into building up our defences, and to hope that we can somehow learn to build at the same speed these creatures can. It seems to me to be too much to hope for. Already, drafting these proposals has taken us the better part of three cycles.
— The second then! What is our second option?
— The second is to flee, your Grace. To send word to the outer worlds, and to travel as far as we can as fast as we can, in all directions, never stopping, never slowing down to anything below half-light. And to pray, to every God we know, that they never develop any technology that allows them to overtake us.