The fire was well built up, the flames leaping to twice the height of a man. The sunset was a vague rose memory on the western horizon, with a full orange moon rising in the east. The freshmen were leaving the circle. The teaching of basics was over. Outbound of the circle, the older students were stretching out, warming up. A few warm up sparring sessions were still taking place. Many, not just the ladies, were checking each other's costumes, body paint and hair, occasionally spinning and leaping to be sure of free movement and proper effect.
The drums started to surge and fade, as the first groups made their entrances, each group from a different tribe, different planet. Early on, most groups were local. As they entered the circle they would set their own beat, strut their own measure, announcing they were there, and there to dance, giving a preview of what was to come. Those already in place would welcome with their own drums, their own instruments, cries of welcome and taunts of challenge. As the circle filled, a few outsider groups began to beam in, visitors from other campuses, and a few from traditional cultural reserves.
It had begun as an academic class. Technically, it still was. Xeno Anthropology 208, Competitive Drum Circle. The joke was that if you were still a freshman officially taking the course, you weren't really able to compete yet. This was not always true. Many students studying primitive cultures came from primitive cultures. They came with their own martial, music and dance traditions, which was good, which was the reason for The Circle, for the Friday Night Fire. The fire existed to share, to celebrate differences, to become one.
For supposed experts on primitive culture, they didn't do a very good job of watching their perimeter. The drums faded as the White Eagle group settled into place. Tay decided it was her turn. She spread her wings, released from her perch, high on a nearby tree, and began a low fast gliding run. Free of the confines of a starship, she filled her lungs, and for the first time in months gave the full voiced cry of her people. "TAY!" Low over the gathering crowd, climbing into the fire's hot thermal, scattering sparks into the circle...
And glad, even airborne, that she had decided to wear sound suppressors. Drum circles are loud, at least to ears bred for night hunting. Her old tribe had missed her, and was welcoming her with sound. She was glad to be back. She banked off the thermal, spiraled around the circle, and landed, bowing before to the chief's platform, wings extended, submitting herself before her old Alpha.
Professor Medaos stepped forward, took her hand, and raised her to her feet. "What's wrong Tay?"
"You didn't scare me half to death. I've never seen you enter the Circle so conservatively." The Nightflyer's equivalent of dance was airborne and acrobatic, making her contributions to the Circle unique.
"Human not like Klingons. Not like Nightflyers. Helm station explodes. Tay can stay? Cannot dance in air. Can drum?" One of the few rules was no watching. If one came to the circle, one came to participate.
The professor, and a few others behind them, grew angry. It was a comforting anger. Males protected females. They were not pleased with how the universe had treated Tay. Still, she had left their tribe. It was up to others to protect their little skydancer now.
Professor Madaos returned briefly to his chair, and returned with three bottles of body paint. He began daubing her face in a pattern she could not recognize... not without a mirror. She could tell, though, it was a bold pattern, a male pattern, a pattern for warriors.
"Stay," he said. "Stay and return, whenever you may." He shook his head. "And they call us primitives..."